Iida Dorsey's brothel and the heyday of Minneapolis' red light district

The Mill District building once served as "a house of ill fame" where "bad women" eked out a living.

The Mill District building once served as "a house of ill fame" where "bad women" eked out a living. Google Street

Penny Petersen and her husband Ted Tucker pedaled along the Mississippi River parkway, around Gold Medal Park, then stopped in an area that once served as Minneapolis' industrial epicenter. Before them stood a statuesque three-story brick gem with an arched entryway. 

This doesn't belong here, mused Petersen, a researcher by trade who'd go on to work for the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Mill District had been loud and dirty dating back to the early 19th century. Along the riverfront stood a canopy of flour mills. Nearby, a railroad yard. On the backside, Washington Avenue, an alcohol-soaked strip where a hard day's night was had by immigrant mill workers. 

The handsome apartment-type building belonged in one of the day's stylish residential neighborhoods, like Lowry Hill or Whittier. Yet someone built it here in the midst of the city's milling might.

Petersen set out to find out why.

She started by mining county and city records, where she struck gold. An electrical permit had been pulled for 212 S. 11th Ave. in 1890. The document classified the building as a "sporting house," the era's euphemism for a brothel. 

The permit also taught Petersen something about Minneapolis history: Although illegal, prostitution was a tolerated enterprise, a business in which the power brokers were women. Not the prostitutes themselves, but the women who owned what another document called houses "of ill fame."     

Iida Dorsey, the bordello's owner, was a black woman who'd grown up in Kentucky. She'd been in Minneapolis only five years when the bordello was built. She was a smart businesswoman, setting up shop in the backyard of her customer base, situated in one of the three major red-light districts.  

"Eleventh Avenue was the place to be," says Petersen. "If you were there in the evening, you'd see all sorts of people passing on the street. Mostly men, I'd say. You'd see bright-colored lights. You'd hear music coming from Iida Dorsey's when the doors opened. Depending on how late at night, you might see a lot of drunken behavior."

According to Petersen, patrons would walk into the bordello's foyer. Dorsey directed them into one of two parlors. The men were expected to buy drinks -- at least for themselves. Dorsey's eight to ten employees lived in the brothel. Petersen suspects they ranged in age from as young as 14 through thirtysomething.  

Once a customer made his choice, she escorted him up the staircase and into a room on one of the top two floors.

Petersen — author of Minneapolis Madams — doesn't know how much the women earned. She suspects it was relatively good for a woman, considering their "low social economic status" during that time. 

"They were part of this class of women servicing these men that were known as 'the bad women,'" she says. "Prostitution might keep food on the table for your children if you should be a single mother or… it might be just keeping body and soul together for yourself. 

"Women earned poverty wages in those days. Their job options were limited, to say the least. Housekeeping like domestic service. At a retail store, which paid poorly. There were some factory jobs that were dangerous and paid poorly. Teaching jobs paid a little bit better. If you had neat handwriting, you might get a job at the county recorder. But those were the exceptions." 

The brothels would die out around the turn of the century when Gov. John S. Pillsbury began a "purity crusade."

The madams and their brothels were now viewed as the devil's maidservants. Some madams were prosecuted. One by one, the bordellos were shut down, Dorsey's included.

Today, the Mill District is a hodgepodge of industrial dinosaurs converted into seven-figure condos and newly built apartments with hip names and rooftop patios. In the midst of the glass and concrete, in the heart of the city's most bourgeois zip code, Dorsey's proud red brick building is an apartment building that hasn't aged with the passage of time.

"All the physical relics of prostitution in Minneapolis history are gone," says Petersen, "except this building."