All images used with permission of the photographers
On the surface, brothels may seem synonymous with good times, but in reality, they are rarely cheerful places. They’re often garish at best, and at worst – especially when abandoned – brothels are downright creepy, cold and lonely. It’s as if the urgency of former patrons searching for satisfaction or a bit of (distinctly business-like) warmth has set a tone of desperation that seeps into their walls. And, if those walls could talk...
It’s not uncommon for brothels to slip into oblivion as soon as they close – no name, no story, just an abandoned building. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the services offered were mainly anonymous, clinical and often illegal – mere business deals squeezed into the wee hours of the night or morning.
Yet, like so many other sites whose stories we only think about when they stare us in the face, these abandoned places of lust evoke a strange curiosity and fascination in our minds. We’ve found seven brothels whose stories we’ve looked at more closely in the midst of their crumbling and decaying remains.
7. Brownwood, TX, USA
“Enter at your own risk” is what this half-open door in Brownwood, TX seems to suggest – though of course today the red light is practically synonymous with the world’s oldest profession. More than 60 years ago, this screen door led to around a dozen rooms in which 'business' was conducted. Don’t miss the white bell on the right!
This is what the inside looked like. Photographer Noel Kerns found several interesting things when he visited, like empty bottles of Knoxit, apparently an old remedy for gonorrhea. Says Kerns: “In several places where the sheetrock has been ripped out by copper thieves, you could look down into the bottom of the wall section and see lots of dead bird skeletons; evidently they found a way in at some point, but never a way out.” Creepy!
The brothel bathroom with tub and sink indicates that some standards of hygiene were observed.
Brownwood had a huge demand for brothels during World War II, as this is where the US Army’s Camp Bowie was located. At peak times, it held over 80,000 soldiers and is still a training camp today.
These were the stairs that potential customers had to climb. Not too easy as far as access goes, and the tunnel-like feel doesn’t make it look too inviting. But it’s sure easier than going to war.
6. Montgomery Pass, NV, USA
Nevada is the only state in the USA where prostitution is legal – as long as it takes place in licensed brothels. These are usually located in outer-lying areas rather than in inner cities, like the nondescript Janie’s Ranch. Located on a busy highway, it was once an establishment of certain repute. It looks like the building had two main entrances as well as a side entrance – or exit, depending on the situation.
Although it closed in the late ‘80s, and has apparently since been demolished, as late as 2008 (when this photo was taken) Janie’s Ranch was home to three visitors’ chairs lined up in a row – as if seating the ghosts of patrons waiting for love.
Today, there are about 28 operating brothels in Nevada. The number of such establishments that have been abandoned over the years is probably quite high given that brothels have been around in the state since the mid-19th century.
When the brothel owners abandoned Janie’s, it looks they took everything of value – even the heart-shaped tub that was once fitted there. Either that, or it was stripped since. Judging by the mold spots around the tub, it must have been used quite a bit. And we thought such heart-shaped fixtures were reserved for the honeymoon suites at Niagara Falls…
Though quite sparsely decorated on the inside – and probably just a pit-stop for truckers crossing the desert and servicemen from the nearby Fallon Naval Air Station – Janie’s boasted quite a view: desert vegetation, mountains and clouds.
5. Buñol, Spain
Though only 24 years old, Nacho Labrador is a pro when it comes to urban exploration – and photography, as we can see. He was just 10 years old when he went for his first foray, wanting to see what lay behind the decrepit walls of buildings. On one of his excursions, Nacho stumbled upon this ‘hostess club’ (aka brothel).
The club is located about 40 km away from Valencia, close to Buñol – the town famous for hosting the Tomatina, the annual tomato festival. More importantly, the establishment was conveniently located on the main road between Madrid and Valencia, no doubt attracting a lot of ‘drive-by traffic’. It was once painted a bright orange. These days not only is the paint peeling but the walls are crumbling too.
A look behind the bar reveals that everything of value has been taken – cabinets, equipment, even the doors. Somebody sure did a thorough job in destroying evidence of the club’s former life. Evidence of what exactly? We can only imagine.
4. Seoul, South Korea
Looking more like a factory than a place of debauchery, this drab concrete building was once a brothel. Since there is no visible sign, maybe the red-and-white striped awnings served as a signal to the initiated.
Looking at the size of this waiting room, business must have been brisk.
Though crackdowns on red-light districts in 2004 forced many brothels to be abandoned in South Korea, it by no means ended prostitution. After all, although it is illegal there, estimates in recent years have put the sex trade as a $13 billion dollar industry that employs approximately 1.2 million Korean women. Since the crackdown, prostitution has been forced underground but has not lost its popularity.
Refreshments seem to have been provided at this establishment and it’s perhaps surprising no one has taken the refrigerators.
This is another entrance, with a sign warning of a curfew for underage citizens.
3. Castejón de Monegros, Aragon, Spain
Castejón de Monegros is another desert brothel, this one located in Los Monegros, in northeastern Spain. ‘Hotel Aragon,’ as it was known, looks like it must have once had an impressive bar setup. Now, though, it’s anything but.
According to photographer Xavier Aragonès Garcia, the hotel used to lie on a major road in between Madrid and Barcelona: “In the beginning the building was used as a hotel, but I guess the business went into decline with the opening of a new motorway that now holds most of the traffic,” he told us. “When I explored the building with some friends we found evidence that, just as [with] many abandoned roadside hotels in Spain, it had been used as a brothel in its final years, just before closing.”
Garcia also reveals: "The huge Osborne bull-shaped advertising billboard that you can see from one of the rooms appears in a 1992 movie by director Bigas Luna called Jamón, jamón. The stars in the film were Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, both just at the beginning of their careers."
Today, as one piece of graffiti in one of the long corridors points out, “there is nothing, thank you very much.”
Though prostitution was decriminalized in Spain in 1995, being a prostitute is not a legally recognized job. It is a grey area, to say the least. Owning an establishment in which prostitution occurs is not illegal, but making money from it is. Thus, many Spanish brothels simply call themselves bars or hostess clubs, or even hotels – as in this case.
This is the former hall at Hotel Aragon. Although probably once spacious and airy, it’s now less inviting, filled with debris.
2. Rhyolite, NV, USA
Rhyolite was a typical Gold Rush town founded in 1904. By 1905, it had a population of 2,500 that wasn’t adverse to the usual vices of the Wild West: 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, 19 lodging houses, 16 restaurants, six barbers, a public bath house and even a weekly newspaper.
The small buildings of the type seen here were called ‘cribs’ and were used for prostitution. It’s unclear as to whether they were as open about their trade as this sign suggests. The placement of the modern warning sign is also bemusing, as it seems to notify of the dangers of frequenting a place of ill repute.
1. Unknown brothel, Spain
Despite metal gates and a brick-covered former door to keep intruders out, this abandoned brothel on a busy highway in Spain has clearly seen its share of rampant vandalism. Urban explorer and photographer Juan found traces of decay, graffiti and human scavenging everywhere.
A shot from above shows the main room in all its ‘glory’: red velvet sofas arranged in cozy corners, dark wood, mirrors and drawings of ladies reminiscent of Paris’ Moulin Rouge. And wait, is that a bidet in the middle of the room? Rack and ruin never looked so sumptuous.
This brothel appears to have been quite big. Its premises hosted a large bar, a series of smaller rooms for liaisons, living quarters, and a kitchen as seen here.
If you’re wondering why the bar here looks different from the one above, it’s because this is a second, smaller bar on the first floor – complete with wood and felt décor, space for a DJ, and ample tables and chairs. This is also where Juan found some porn films. On VHS.
Truck parked outside abandoned brothel in Fallon, Nevada
There are so many more abandoned brothels around the world that would tell interesting stories if only the walls could speak. Luckily, with the keen eye of a photographer, they sometimes do.
With special thanks to all the photographers who granted permission for their images to be used in this article.