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Monday, January 17, 2011

Discovering the home of Houdini

One of the great gifts for all Houdini buffs is that Houdini's New York home at 278 West 113th Street in Harlem is still standing. Not only that, but the house has remained largely unchanged (at least on the outside). While you can’t go inside, you can still view the famous brownstone from the street. It took me a ridiculously long time to do this. But in August of 2005, I finally made the pilgrimage and discovered the home of Harry Houdini for myself.

On my first trip to New York in 1990, I was just too overwhelmed by the city and subway system (hey, I'm from LA) to seek out the house -- although I was somehow able to locate Houdini’s grave with only the information that it was "in Queens." Also, throughout the '70s and '80s, all one heard was how the house was located in what had become a “bad area” (which was pretty much said of ALL New York City back then). Still, I deeply regretted not making the trek, and fantasized often about what it would be like to finally stand before Houdini's New York home. I even had dreams about it.

Then, in August 2005, I returned to New York with my then girlfriend, Athena, for a James Bond Collectors Weekend (yes, I'm also into Bond -- see my other blog). Part of the weekend would include a walking tour of locations used in the Bond books and films, during which I noticed we would travel to the edge of Harlem to see some locations from Live and Let Die. I knew that would put me within blocks of 113th Street, so I made a plan to peel off from the Bond tour at that point and pay homage to my other great passion, Houdini.

The tour ran long, and it was getting dark when we finally reached the edge of Harlem at the top of Central Park. Almost immediately, someone in a passing car shouted, "Get out of Harlem!" This set everyone on edge. But we still had some light, and true to plan, Athena and I bid our farewells to the group and proceeded up Malcolm X Blvd. and deeper into Harlem, much to everyone's horror.

Harry's hood

I didn't know exactly where the house was, but I knew we would eventually hit 113th Street -- which we did within a few blocks of Central Park North. We turned left, and from here on out, I counted on my ability to recognize the house when I saw it, although I certainly knew the famous address -- “278” which is how Houdini always referred to his Harlem home.

Now, I must say, the stories of this being a "bad area" are greatly exaggerated. Or maybe things have dramatically improved since the '70s and '80s (I'm told they have). 113th Street was actually very nice, with lots of families out on their front stoops and children playing. This is still a neighborhood of family homes, and the old brownstones that remain are really very beautiful.

We traveled further than I thought we would need too – crossing over another major street at 7th Ave. – but then, as we neared the end of that block, there it was! I recognized it instantly. Before me in the fading light was 278 – the home of Houdini!

That's it!

My first surprise on seeing the actual house was that it’s on the opposite side of the street than I had always imagined. Even my dreams had it wrong. (I supposed this proves I'm not psychic.) And while it’s a deeper reddish color than I expected, the house itself is unmistakable and largely unchanged from Houdini’s day.

Another surprise is that a historical plaque now hangs beside the front door, noting that this was Houdini’s home. (This plaque was installed as part of the Cultural Medallion Program). One disappointment is that there is now a gate cordoning off the property. Not only does this change the look somewhat, but my hopes of being photographed at the door, like so many other Houdini pilgrims, were pretty much dashed. But I could still take pictures.

Directly in front of the house was a group of clearly fun-loving gentlemen enjoying a late afternoon cocktail (or several). As they were in my picture, I decided it was only right to introduce myself and explain my presence. Also, did they know this was once the home of Houdini? They quickly answered, "Yep, we’re just sitting here waiting for him to come back!"

They were feeling no pain and were happy to move aside and let me take photos of house, and they especially enjoyed when I asked if I could take a photograph of them.

"We're just waiting for him to come back."

Houdini purchased 278 in 1904 for $25,000. At the time, the neighborhood was largely home to prosperous Jewish and German immigrants. According to Bill Kalush, the house was built in 1895, but the Houdinis were its first occupants. Houdini called the house "the finest private house that any magician has ever had the great fortune to possess."

Inside, Houdini had a gigantic sunken bathtub and a large mirror installed to practice his underwater effects. The bathroom tiles were engraved with an "H," while Bess's bathroom sported a "B." Houdini also had the entire house wired for sound -- including an early "wireless" radio in the carpets -- so he could amaze visitors with mind reading effects. Even the front door was an illusion. It looked normal, but when you turned the knob, it opened from the hinge side.

The library inside 278

The first floor was a formal reception area, and for a time also the medical office of Houdini’s brother, Leopold (who was almost killed in the house by an intruder in 1907). According to Houdini’s niece, Marie Blood, who spent a great deal of time at 278, the living area was primary on the second floor, which featured a large blue carpet with a gold dragon. The third floor held the master bedroom, where Harry and Bess had twin beds and were served via a dumbwaiter. The bedroom also had a gold-leaf curio cabinet containing heirlooms, including the famous Mirror handcuffs. Houdini’s office, workroom, and formidable library (complete with full-time librarian) was located on the top floor. The basement was used as a workshop and storage, and somehow continued to yield undiscovered Houdini treasures into the 1990s.

Houdini in his top floor office

Houdini lived at 278 with Bess, a menagerie of pets, and various family members, including both mothers, until his death in 1926 (although he refused to occupy the house for several years after his mother's death). Bessie sold the house in May 1927 to the Bonnano family, who lived across the street. Rose Bonnano and her sister claimed Houdini came to them in a dream and said he had buried treasure in the basement. Marie Blood said, “I think they spent the first year they lived in that house digging up the cellar.”

Rose Bonnano lived in the house well into the 1970s. For a time she rented part of it out as a dormitory for nearby Columbia University. Today it is subdivided into private apartments and appears to be in beautiful shape. It stands proudly as one of four original brownstones on the block.

It was getting dark. Athena and I still had to deal with finding our way back to midtown, so we left with a plan to return the following day, which we did after spending the morning at Houdini’s grave in Queens. This time we had good light and took several nice photos and video of the house and block. But what I really wanted to do -- what any Houdini fan would want -- was to see inside the house. But how?

That's when I spotted my chance. A UPS man was coming down the street, delivering packages to each of the brownstones. As he neared 278, I fell into step behind him and glided through the gate and up the steps. I stood just behind him as he rang the bell, and the door was opened by the property landlady (or so I assume). She signed for the packages, and as he turned away, I stepped forward.

I introduced myself as politely as I could, explaining that I ran a Houdini website and had come from Los Angeles -- would it be possible if I could just step into the foyer and have a quick look around? Unfortunately, she was unmoved by my story, and I was summarily rebuffed. Hey, it’s understandable. I’m sure this happens a lot, and she was just doing her job. I'm not even sure a bribe would have worked (which, unfortunately, only occurred to me after). But even though I wasn’t going to get inside, from where I was standing I could still SEE inside, and I soaked in what I saw…

Marie Blood had told me the first floor of 278 was very dark, and from what I could see, it still is. The foyer is well-documented as having been a sort of museum of Houdini mementoes, including his many trophies from around the world, and his collection of magic wands belonging to such greats as John Henry Anderson, Herrmann, and Harry Kellar. One visiting reporter referred to it as “a veritable fairy-tale sort of room.” Even though I’m sure it’s been renovated, I could clearly still see the birch and maple paneling amid dim lighting and could easily imagine where Houdini's treasures once stood. Pretty cool.

After the landlady closed the door on me, I found myself standing in a perfect place to take my pilgrim photo. Athena, who had hung behind at the open gate, was already framed up on me and snapped this terrific shot.

On hallowed ground

Before we left, it occurred to me to explore the street behind the house. This proved an inspired idea. Much to my delight, the back of 278 -- which I’d never seen in any photograph -- is almost entirely visible.



One unexpected point of interest is that the famous “Seinfeld Diner” (in reality called Tom’s Restaurant) is not too far away from 278 at 112th Street and Broadway, something I never knew until this trip. Inside it is not what you see on the show – it’s really a beautiful old restaurant with what we now consider “diner” characteristics: cashier, lunch counter, etc. It occurred to me as we ate there after our 278 adventure (I had the Hungarian goulash) that, had this restaurant been around in Houdini's time -- and it sure looked like it could have been -- it's almost certain that Harry and Bess would have eaten here. A fun thought.

Athena's pilgrimage

I've not been back to New York since that trip. But when I do return, I will certainly make another pilgrimage to 278 West 113th Street. Who knows? Maybe this time I will somehow be able to step inside those historic doors.

For the best description of the interior of 278, read Ken Slilverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, pages 267 – 269, and Marie Blood’s Appendix, “Recollections of Harry and Bess Houdini,” in this same book. Patrick Culliton also devotes an entire chapter to “The House of Mystery” in his new book, Houdini the Key. For the wild story of the attack on Leopold Weiss inside 278, check out The Secret Life of Houdini, pages 196 – 200.

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Map showing the location of 278 in Harlem, NYC

49 comments:

  1. Fantastic!! Thanks for sharing such a great sight!

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  2. Some very cool stuff here. I didn't know it was divided into apartments. Wasn't there a seance held here that was broadcast on the Long John Nevil show in the 60s or 70s? Any footage from that?

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    1. I grew-up here, 40'-60s...found out at around 12 the people I saw coming and going from the building next door were Houdini's family and friends holding seances attempting to reach him. The building to the right in the videos and pictures is where I grew up # 280. Have no idea why I Googled any of this. Maybe it's time for me to enjoy the conscience level, I enjoyed doing those times. Used to see a talk to Rose Bonnano all the time as a child...

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    2. Wow, that's very interesting. Thank you for finding us and sharing, IQ. :)

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  3. I am without words ... for once. Thanks!! I will be back later with a more thoughtful response.

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  4. Thanks, melbo.

    Dean, in the doc "Houdini - People Came To See Him Die" Morris Young talks about going to a seance inside 278. Maybe that's the same one?

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  5. Yes, I remember that now that you mention it. I recall Stanley Palm mentioning the Seance as well on another Houdini documentary.

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  6. Thanks for sharing this story of your pilgrimage! How cool that those guys were waiting for HH to come back. Makes sense that the brownstone is no longer a single family residence, but I hadn't really thought of the implications. I wonder if the custom tile worked bathroom "HH" festooned (which appears, I recall, in at least one fictionalized biopic) remains?

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  7. I thought I had heard once that the bathroom customizations were gone.

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  8. John, you've surpassed yourself with this one. Just love it. I can well imagine the excitement on finding and seeing the place for the first time. Nice job ... sneaking up behind the postie. Pity the landlady didn't let you inside but I have a feeling that if you do go back, you'll manage it this time.

    I love the way the Houdinis lived there in an extended family situation - probably of benefit to all as they were so often on the road.

    The Seinfeld thing was a bit of a bonus! Houdini's hair often looked a bit like Kramer's come to think of it.

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  9. Thanks, melbo. This was fun to write. Wanted a way to tell my readers everything I knew about 278. This was really the best way to do, with a personal story. Now I just need to get inside! What a story I could tell then. :)

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  10. Sweet post! I'd love to go there someday and get a shot of that brownstone myself. Funny though...for 26 rooms (maybe there's more rooms now that it's an apartment), it doesn't look that big from the back or the front. But it really stands out, compared to all the other neighboring buildings. It has a welcoming character to it.

    I also love the shot of Houdini in his office. He looks so focused among all the haphazard clutter. He was even more of a pack-rat than I am. :p His library looks really nice though. Although his poor librarian (Mr. Becks, was it?) had to catalog all those books himself, I think. Oy, that's LOT of books! I'd also love to get over to the Library of Congress to see some of them someday, if I can.

    Maybe if you want to get inside you could pose as a person looking to rent a place. Then bring a hidden camera along and at least get some pics of the hallway and one suite. Well, it's an idea. :p

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  11. Thanks, Beth. I'm actually not sure about the 26 room claim. You find that in older bios, but might have included closets. :p Kalush says the house had a dozen or so rooms. But, yes, these Brownstones are deceptive. They are much bigger inside than you'd expect.

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  12. I have a friend named Dixie Dooley that lives in Vegas. He went to Houdini's home many years ago and somehow became good friends with Marie Blood and he ended up getting a ton of free Houdini goodies out of the basement of the home.. One of them being a table that i cracked the secret on..
    My name is taylor reed and my site is www.taylorreed.com

    Dixie has some really cool one of a kind items that once belonged to the master of escape and has gone to this house more than once..

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  13. Hi Taylor. I don't know Dixie, but I of course know of him. I actually just got a copy of his tape recorded tour of 278, but I haven't listened to it yet as I don't have a casette player anymore (having it transfered to CD by a friend). I've envious of all these guys who got inside the house, not to mention came away with stuff!

    Nice website. Thanks for the link.

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  14. Hey John, If you wold like to talk to Dixie, I can get you his number..

    E-mail me and i'll get it to ya.

    Thanks,
    TR

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  15. This post is number two now. Yeah.

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  16. Yes, I'm very happy about that. :)

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  17. John, thanks for posting this. I remember watching your YouTube videos a while back (before I met you at Cannon's in 2009?). I literally feel a bit ill knowing the house has been divided into apartments for literally any Joe Blow to occupy. I truly wish some wealthy Houdini enthusiast would have purchased the property years ago to preserve it and perhaps offer tours to Houdini enthusiasts. It's a major landmark that is just as valuable as any other historical figure's home. I mean, is Mark Twain's house divided into apartments? Anyway, thanks again for the article, photos, and videos.

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  18. Thanks, Tom. I guess I'm just happy that the house is still there and, from the outside, looks the same. But, yes, it would have been great for someone to have bought the house and turned it into a museum or a magic club of some kind. One good thing is I think is has only been carved into three or four units, a unit per floor, so it might not be as radically changed as we fear.

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  19. Hey I just stumbled upon your blog, and I feel that it's my duty to comment because I actually LIVE in Houdini's old house -- 278 w. 113th St. There are only 3 tenants who live here: the landlord, who has the basement and the parlor floor (aka 1st floor), a couple who live on the 2nd floor, and then myself -- I occupy the entire 3rd floor. My apartment is where Houdini had his personal study and library, apparently. I'm so sorry you never got a chance to come inside. If you ever have the opportunity to come back to NYC, I'd be more than happy to let you see the place. :) I can even send you pictures of the inside if you want. Feel free to email me.

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    1. Hi. I have just gotten on this site and read through it all. I have never neen to the Houdini house until Nov of 2011 when I did some shows in the NYC area. We drove by there late at night and took some photos.
      I'd love to meet with you the next time we are back in NYC. My name is Mario Manzini. Guinnes World Champion Escapologist. Houdini was and still is my idol. Visit my web site at: www.MarioManziniEntertainment.com
      Could you get back to me about that?

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    2. Thanks for the comment, Mario. Very happy you've discovered my blog. I will add your website to my Escape Links. Hope you find more here to enjoy. :)

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  20. Holy cats! Thank you for getting in touch. Email has been sent. :)

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  21. If I was a multi-millionaire, I'd buy out the owners and return 278 to its original state. And I'd also snap up Marilyn Monroe's last home. XD

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  22. Awesome John!
    I am often curious about aspects of Houdini life that literature does not cover.
    I share the March 24th birth date of the month with Harry Houdini.

    Al Bach

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  23. Did you know that Jack Trepel, amateur magician, florist, and president of the SAM Parent Assembly in New York City, used to live directly across the street from Houdini?

    http://geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Jack_Trepel

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    1. Trying to find more information about Jack, who is my great uncle. Genii copy can't be found on their site. Any suggestions? Appreciate any help, did you have any connection with him?

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    2. Clive Trepel MillerAugust 28, 2014 at 1:12 AM

      I know quite a bit about Uncle Jack, especially pre-1945. He was my grandfather's younger brother, whose first wife was my grandmother's sister. How can we speak to each other?

      Clive Trepel Miller

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    3. Clive: Just happened to be looking at the site and saw your recent post. Please contact me at ltrepel@gmail.com or call me at 917-301-4799. I am in Brazil right now, so phone will only be available when I return to NY Oct. 7. Email is available now. Look forward to hearing from you.

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  24. I don't know that, Joseph. Interesting. Thanks.

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  25. Hey John! There I was, doing a quick search for some descriptions of the man's home, and what should pop up but your video on YouTube! Fantastic, and I really enjoyed reading this account of your pilgrimage as well! I was putting the finishing touches on my latest short story, Coffeyville (two guesses as to what it is about)and your vid and post really helped me but a face on his home. Thanks for all your Houdini Hard Work!

    -Chris

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  26. To "Anonymous": If you really do live at 278 113th, my apologies for my earlier reference to "any Joe Blow" living there. My only point is that I wish it would have been preserved as a museum. Do you happen to be a magician or magic/Houdini enthusiast? All the best. Tom

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  27. BTW, this post should be showing up in my list of "All Time Most Popular Posts". It should be #3, in fact. Not sure why it isn't listing at all. A glitch. :(

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  28. Terrific! Thank you very much for all the detail and the further references to check, John. I'm working on a short fiction piece about Harry for an alternative history collection and your blog has given me some great details and ideas.
    Cheers.

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  29. Glad to be of help, Tim! Thank you. :)

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  30. Apt 3 top floor is vacant. Would you know anyone who wants to rent. I am the realtor for the owner.

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    1. Wow! If I was rolling in cash, I would so rent this as a second home. Alas...

      If you care to email me your contact info, I will be happy to do a blog about the availability.

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  31. I work at the school on the block. I walked past the brownstone every work day for at least a year before I knew of its history. When you return, you will find those guys still sitting outside waiting and enjoying a beverage.

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    1. LOL. Hey, I might join them! :)

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    2. I live across the street and recognize one of those guys. I was coming home with a 12 pack a couple days ago and he asked if I needed any help with it lol

      As far as there being 26 rooms I know my building has 6 bedrooms on each floor so its possible.

      Another thing...I didn't even know he lived across the street. I wound up on this page because I felt a ghost stepping on my bed a few nights ago....!! lol

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    3. Thanks for the comment Blake. Good to know my friends are still hanging out there. :) Ghost, eh? Did it answer to the name of Ehrich Weiss?

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    4. It felt like a small child. I googled my address along with ghosts and it wasn't until then that I knew his house was across the street. I read that he and his wife had an imaginary child. Do you know anything about her?

      Also, it sounds crazy but after I wrote that yesterday I went to the post office on 116th and as I was walking back there was a man who looked alot like Houdini(6ft though) kneeling over a baby in a stroller. He was smiling at the baby but the couple hurried on their way lol. After the original ghost experience I'm pretty sure that was him.

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    5. Spooky! But I like this. :)

      Ruth Brandon writes about the imaginary in her book The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. It was boy who I think was named Mayer Samuel (after HH's father). In notes back and forth, Harry and Bess created an ongoing narrative about his amazing accomplishments, ending with when he became President of the United States.

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  32. Thanks. I'll try to get the ebook. Did those guys in the street ever mention anything about seeing Houdini? Have you ever heard of anyone seeing him around the neighborhood? Not as a ghost but in the flesh.

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    1. Afraid it was far too long ago for there to be anyone left who would have seen/known Houdini himself.

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  33. Thanks for this great entry and for your passion about Harry Houdini. I am writing a book with some Houdini tie-ins and this entry was quite useful!

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    1. Glad to hear it. Let me know when your book is available and I'll give it a shout out here.

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