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Brothel once stood on new Fargo City Hall site; NDSU professors hope to recover artifacts

FARGO -- As excavators are moving earth to make way for the new City Hall, they're likely to find the foundation of what was once one of Fargo's toniest brothels: the Chrystal Palace.

The Chrystal Palace was a brothel that stood on the site of Fargo's future City Hall. This photo of the building was taken about 1918, seven years after the brothel's madam, Malvina Massey, died. Massey was one of the city's few black residents around the turn of the 20th century.
Work continues in downtown Fargo at the site where the new city hall will stand. A brothel called The Chrystal Palace once stood in the area.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO - As excavators are moving earth to make way for the new City Hall, they're likely to find the foundation of what was once one of Fargo's toniest brothels: the Chrystal Palace.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the so-called palace sat among a cluster of other houses of ill-repute on the east side of downtown near the Red River. It was the city's red-light district, which everybody back then called the Hollow.

Familiar with this infamous slice of Fargo history, North Dakota State University professors Angela Smith and Kristen Fellows are hoping to take possession of a load of dirt from around the Chrystal Palace's foundation. Fingers crossed: it will include the remains of the brothel's privy shaft.

Yes, that's right - the privy shaft, also known as the hole under the outhouse.

"I know this sounds weird, but these holes were not just used for just human waste," Fellows said. "They're really just sort of a trash pit, and we find things like broken ceramics and bottles and glasses, pipes - pretty much anything that might get broken and be thrown away."

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Fellows made it clear that by the time archaeologists like herself delve into the contents of a privy shaft, "all of the organic matter is gone."

Terry Stroh, architect of the new City Hall, said a contractor is willing to scoop the dirt from around the Chrystal Palace's foundation and send it to NDSU in a dump truck. That way the professors, with help from students, can sift through the soil looking for artifacts that could offer a window into what daily life was like at the brothel, Fellows said.

"Our hope is just to essentially do a salvage operation archaeologically, you know, and just collect what we can," she said.

Fellows said she and Smith reached out to city officials over a year ago to ask about conducting a dig at the site of the brothel, but it wasn't until recently that their request got any traction.

Dan Mahli, Fargo's community development administrator, said the city supports the professors' archaeological effort as long as it doesn't delay the construction project. Though, he said the city left the final decision up to Stroh.

Fellows and Smith initially asked for about two weeks to dig at the site, but Stroh nixed that idea.

For one thing, he said, there are safety concerns at a busy construction site. Plus the project is already about two weeks behind schedule, and with winter looming, the builders are racing against time.

"Every day we don't do something is a day that we could lose when weather starts," Stroh said.

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Fellows acknowledged that doing a controlled dig at the site would be ideal and that artifacts may be damaged during the salvage operation. But she pointed out that much of what's found is often already broken, especially if it's in a privy shaft where garbage was tossed.

Smith, a history professor, said that before the Chrystal Palace was torn down in the 1950s in a wave of urban renewal, its address was 201 3rd St. N. It was where the parking lot of the current City Hall is now, she said.

Stroh said that when the new City Hall is finished, its lobby will be in almost the same spot as where the Chrystal Palace stood. "We did get a bit of a kick out of that," Fellows said of the brothel's prominent placement.

Stroh said excavation started last week at the new City Hall site. And it may be this week that a load of dirt is collected from around the Chrystal Palace's foundation, Fellows said.

What's discovered in the sifting may lead to academic articles, lectures or a public exhibit, Fellows said. The spotlight wouldn't be new for the Chrystal Palace, which was featured in a display, curated by Smith's students, at Moorhead's Hjemkomst Center in 2013.

"Taboo Fargo/Moorhead: An Unmentioned History" detailed the tawdrier side of life here from 1871, when both cities were founded, to 1935, when Prohibition ended.

Part of the show told the story of the Chrystal Palace's madam, Malvina Massey. A Virginia native, Massey possibly arrived in Fargo in the early 1880s and became one of the city's few black residents.

"She really stood out in a visible way," Fellows said. "If you look at the newspaper articles of the time, her race is definitely mentioned a lot."

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Indeed, when she died in 1911, The Forum headline announced, "Aging negress is dead."

While prostitution was technically illegal in Massey's era, an informal system of regulation allowed brothels to operate as long as they paid monthly fines. It was a system that Massey navigated for the two decades she ran the Chrystal Palace.

"She was a businesswoman first and foremost," Fellows said. "We think of prostitution as being a vice, but she was running this brothel looking to make a profit."

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