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  • RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Guide Staci Cox, above, leads Old Sacramento tours through the underground portion of the old Halls & Luhrs building which included brothels among its varied enterprises in the 19th century. The "Get the Lowdown" tour features tales of the times, including one about a naked madam who chased a deadbeat customer down the street.

  • RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Halls & Luhrs building

  • RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Surviving artifacts are on display during the "Get the Lowdown" tour in Old Sacramento. The old brothels in the Halls & Luhrs building were replaced by a grocery store in 1884.

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Brothel site lays bare Sacramento's racy roots

Published: Sunday, Jul. 10, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 10, 2011 - 12:05 pm

For the second straight year, people can take underground tours of Old Sacramento, where a newly excavated site from the 1850s lays bare some of the city's racy roots.

The first stop on the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation's "Get the Lowdown" tour is the Halls & Luhrs building, once the site of brothels and other bygone businesses.

Tour organizers say the brothels were among a number of enterprises that contributed to the young city's economic development.

"The people who lived on that site represent a cross section of the people who came to Sacramento and tried to make a go of it with varying professions," said Marcia Eymann, executive director of the Old Sacramento Foundation.

Tour guide Staci Cox said one of the brothel owners, Johanna Hiegle, was an "infamous courtesan" who, legend has it, once chased an unpaying customer down Second Street while she was nude.

Cox spoke more admiringly of Frankie Bass, whose brothel once stood level with the Sacramento River. A literate, property-holding woman of biracial descent, Bass also was notable for taking out insurance before her haunt burned down in 1854.

Apparently, those brothels were not elevated above the floodplain as most other establishments of the day had been. When the Halls & Luhrs grocery store was erected over the boarded-up remains of the brothels in 1884, their knickknacks were preserved in the soil.

The artifacts found and now displayed under the Halls & Luhrs building give evidence of the community's diversity.

Quite a few of the residents were immigrants. A Syrian bootblack named Peter Zacharias is thought to have worked in a now-buried lot alongside a tinsmith, Tong Hang from China.

Recovered objects like perfume vials, jugs of alcohol and hairbrushes indicate that women were an entrepreneurial force in that long-neglected cellar. They were seamstresses, cigar merchants, dressmakers – and typically madams.

The brothels operated in an era when 2.5 square miles of downtown were raised an average of 9.5 feet to avoid catastrophic flooding.

"Part of our mission is to straighten out rumors about underground Sacramento," Cox said.

She denied the myth that the subterranean sites on the tour, which are actually isolated pockets, were ever joined in an illicit smuggling network through the "catacombs."

Sacramento experienced a rough-and-tumble transition between 1863 and 1877, as it literally hoisted itself up from a Gold Rush boomtown into a stable settlement.

So much rain fell in the winter of 1861 that an inland sea formed, and Gov. Leland Stanford traveled by rowboat to his inauguration.

Submerged and at risk of losing its hard-won capital status, Sacramento decided to raise itself up to a higher grade.

"Raising the buildings was quite the endeavor, all done without modern machinery," Cox said.

Some of the buildings were vaulted on precarious jacks, not unlike stilts, while others converted their landings into basements and crowned themselves with an extra floor.

The feat was a political as well as a physical one, Eymann said. No less impressive than the engineering was the business community's readiness to tax itself to complete the project.

"It was the public that motivated the government to take action," she said. "It shows a strong desire to retain the community that was here, in an area naturally prone to flooding."

A married couple from Santa Rosa, Wendy and Guy Nicholas, said they wouldn't have known about the moving-up chapter of Sacramento's history without the tour.

"This may not be the romantic part of our two-day getaway, but it's definitely interesting," Wendy Nicholas said.

Another visitor, Jennifer Jenkins, of New Orleans, said she went on the underground tour after seeing it featured on a TV show about the paranormal. She was reminded of her hometown's struggles with flooding, and was attracted to the "original architecture" in both places.

"Even though a ghost didn't come out, I still enjoyed the tour and recommend it to everyone at least once."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ben Schenkel



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