Nina Clifford and Her Brothel

(Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Collection)

Nina (Nine-ah) Clifford was born Hannah Crowe and, at the age of 35, moved to Saint Paul from Detroit following her husband’s death in 1886. She gained fame (and notoriety) after the move for running a brothel in Saint Paul’s red light district from 1889 to 1929.

Nina’s building could be found at 147 Washington Street, just up the hill from the Upper Landing and a block down the hill from the city’s police station. It was built for $12,000 in 1888 by Walter Ife, and designed to be an ornate, high class looking building within an area of flop houses. It was known for high ceilings, and offered a waiting room and lounge for its patrons. The building permit listed the intended use as a “dwelling house” and “seminary”, but with up to eleven women living with her (at the brothel’s peak) its intentions was pretty clear from the beginning.

Its classy look meant that she was able to cater to the finest and most powerful clientele. Nina’s was a hot spot for gangsters, politicians, and high society (known as the place to bring a boy that you’d like to help to “become a man”). She was able to provide her service thanks to the police looking the other way (Geeky blog writer’s note: Monthly bribes will do that). Rumor has it that she also kept a black book of everyone that came into the house (not proven). A second rumor talks about a tunnel running underground to the Minnesota Club, but this has never been proven (they have/had a picture of her on the wall (they said it was her - it wasn't, more of a stock image), and had a brick from the building given to them after it was torn down - but not proven proven). At one point her business was going so well that she had two keep two phones within the house.

She died of a stroke on a trip back to Detroit in July 1929, three weeks short of her 78th birthday. Shortly after her death, her heirs tried to turn her home into a nightclub. The city, already at the back half of the gangster era and looking to clean its image up, wanted nothing to do with the idea. It was said that Nina died with little money, and there are various rumors as to why.  As a whole, it seems the myth of Nina Clifford is bigger than the actual story (though owning a brothel and having the most powerful clients in the city had to be pretty interesting). There isn't a lot of information to support the actual life of Nina.

Up the hill by the Cathedral is Nina Street, platted in 1854 it is incorrectly thought to be named after the brothel owner. However, the coffee shop up the street “Nina’s Coffee CafĂ©” is.

Share on Google Plus