Last Sunday I spent three remarkable hours inside Houdini's house at 278 West 113th Street in New York City. The occasion was an open house for the brownstone which is now on the market for $4.6 million. I've long dreamed of being able to enter "278" (as Houdini called it), and my dream came true in spectacular manner.
There are only a handful of descriptions of the inside of 278, and those only describe certain areas. I used as my guides the descriptions by Marie Blood in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, Dixie Dooley's description and diagrams in Houdini Question Reality, and Marcet Haldeman's interview with Houdini in the Oct. 1925 Haldeman-Julius Monthly. Combining these with what I saw, I've tried my best to puzzle out the house as it was in Houdini time. While I'm certain of some things, other aspects are educated guesses. I'm sure we will have lots to discuss in the comments below.
I've been struggling in how to best describe the house and all that I saw last Sunday, so I figure I'll just lay it out exactly as I experienced it. So let's retake the 278 tour together.
The official open house was scheduled for 1:00pm, but I had arranged to meet the realtor, Beverley Draggon of Douglas Elliman Real Estate, at 12:30 for a private pre-tour. I arrived at noon and lingered outside, chatting with the friendly neighbors and playing with their cat. The next door neighbor joked that Harry visits him from time to time. I then learned that a pub once sat on the corner, and neighborhood lore says that Houdini had a tunnel running from his house to the pub. Not sure I buy the tunnel story (sounds suspiciously like Laurel Canyon), but it was cool to learn there was a pub here in Houdini's day.
Promptly at 12:30, the friendly (and wonderfully tolerant) Beverley Draggon arrived. She unlocked the front gates and after so many years of dreaming about this moment, I was on my way inside 278.
Foyer (2nd Floor)
You enter 278 on the second floor (in brownstones what's known as the Parlor Floor). In the past, many mistakenly call this the 1st floor and thereby confuse subsequent floors. The front double doors open into a small room -- a snow room of sorts -- and then a second single doorway opens into the foyer. This second door was the trick door that, in Houdini's time, opened from the hinge side when you turned the door knob. I searched for evidence of the trick hinges, but a metal housing has now been laid over where any evidence would be.
The foyer is beautiful and dramatic. Beverley pointed out that the wood work is all original. The unique lattice around the stairs had been in "bad shape" and were restored. There's a large mirror flanked by coat hooks. The mirror glass has been replaced, but the wood frame and hooks are still original. Yes, this is where Houdini hung his hat after a hard day of escaping straitjackets.
As you enter the foyer you immediately see a large pair of double doors that lead into the parlor. However, Beverley said she wanted to show me the top floors first as those units were still occupied and would not be open during the open house. (Thank goodness I came early!) So up the stairs we went to...
4th Floor - Bedrooms, Bess's Bathroom, Workroom, Office.
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What one notices right away when reaching the top of 278 is the original stained glass skylight over the stairwell. In Houdini's time, this could be cranked open. The hallway here feels especially cramped as a wall has been added to enclose the back rooms into its own apartment. Beverley unlocked the door and in we went.
Marie Blood gives a very good description of the 4th floor, and what she describes is very much still there. The bedroom Marie stayed in is a small room on the left. Beside it is a larger bedroom with fireplace where Bess's mother lived. According to Marie, Julie Karcher also lived on this floor. It's possible she stayed in what would have been another small room adjacent to Mrs. Rahner's room, which is now a kitchen.
As one moves down the narrow hallway toward the front of the house, there is a small bathroom just past the kitchen. For whatever reason, I didn't look inside, and I'm kicking myself for that! That's because I later learned this was Bess's bathroom (Harry and Bess had separate bathrooms), and Dixie Dooley records that the tiles here sport the initials "BH." Did I miss seeing those tiles!!!???
(Later in my trip, Bill Kalush told me that the bathroom tiles had been removed a few years ago, so maybe I didn't miss anything after all. But the idea still haunts me, and I'll leave it to someone else to confirm or deny the presence of those BH tiles.)
Maybe the reason I overlooked the bathroom was because I was within steps of entering a major room. Both Marie and Marcet Haldeman identify this large front room as the workroom -- "Houdini Headquarters" if you will. It was here that Houdini's secretaries typed his letters and where his library was cataloged by Alfred Beck. Marie Blood says, "There were always lots of people in there and everyone was busy." The below photo shows the room today and the workroom in action in Houdini's time.
Both Marie and Haldeman say this is also where Houdini had his office. Haldeman gives an especially good description of the jam-packed room in a small "nook" off the workroom. That nook is still there, and I was expecting to find a great photographic match. But I admit I did not. In fact, the way the room is closed off, I have no idea how the famous photo of Houdini in his office was achieved. There is also an early photo of 278 that shows this as an open balcony, but I expect it could have been enclosed in Houdini's time.
So even though I couldn't really make a match, the eyewitness accounts of this being Houdini's office are strong evidence, and it makes sense the office would be off the workroom. So I'm going with this as the location of Houdini's office. (But I'll discuss a few other candidates as we continue the tour.)
For much better photos of all the 4th floor rooms, check out THIS POST from 2016.
3rd Floor - Harry and Bess's Bedroom, Houdini's bathroom, Sitting Room, Office?
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Marie Blood says that Houdini and Bess's master bedroom was on the third floor. It's also here we see the basic layout that all subsequent floors follow; two large rooms front and back with an open room connecting them. While I'm not 100% sure, it appears the back room was Harry and Bess's master bedroom. Having botched my attempt to capture a panoramic photo of the workroom, I did pull off a nice panoramic of the bedroom (below). The second set of photos show the connecting room with the original closets and dumb waiter (now a closet).
Off the bedroom is Houdini's bathroom. This is where he is said to have practiced holding his breath in an "oversized" bathtub. The bathroom is not much changed, except that it now has a modern tub and toilet. The original tubs are still in the house (more on those later), and while maybe large by 1904 standards, they appear perfectly normal. In fact, the area where the tub sat would not accommodate anything larger than what we'd consider a normal tub. And while the tiles on the walls appear original, the floor tiles have been replaced. So if there ever was an "HH" to be found here, it's long gone.
Finding myself alone in the bathroom, I resisted the temptation to use the facilities, just to say that I did. But I did snap a photo of the toilet area. After all, this is where Houdini must have done some of his best thinking.
Moving through the connective closet room (and new kitchen), one enters a large front room. One of my missions was to identify where the photo of Houdini sitting reading his mail was taken. Luckily, the photo shows a fireplace with distinctive features directly behind him (all six fireplaces in the house are different). Sure enough, the fireplace in this room was a perfect match! One can also clearly see the doorway into the connecting rooms, so the whole geography snapped into place. It was my first firm photographic match of the day and an exciting moment. Even though I was in Houdini's house and knew he was everywhere, this somehow brought him into the room in a way that confirmed for me that, yes, this is the place!
Off this front room is yet another closed off "nook." In many regards, this seems to be a much better photographic match for Houdini's fabled office space. Even Beverley felt this room was the one in the photo. Could Houdini have had his office here at one point and then moved it upstairs? Possibly.
Now, I admit my layout of the 3rd floor is up for debate. Dixie Dooley's own illustration shows this front room as the master bedroom and the back room as a "coffee room." He also shows a quite different room configuration in the back that opens up the possibility that Houdini's office space could have been located there where we see another set of double windows. For now I'll stick with what I've described, but I'm open to changes.
Looking through the windows, I could see people beginning to gather out front. It was time for the official open house, so we headed back downstairs to the most famous and most photographed part of 278 -- a floor where there is little question about what it was like in Houdini's time.
2nd Floor (Parlor Level) - Foyer, Trophy Room, Library.
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As I described earlier, a large pair of double doors sit off to the right of the 2nd floor foyer. We now pushed through those doors and entered is the spectacular parlor. Here all the original wood work and high tin ceilings remain. This was Houdini's trophy room, well remembered by all who visited the magician. Haldeman called it "a veritable fairy tale like room." Here Houdini had display cases filled with mementos from his career, a collection of wands from famous magicians, and his bronze bust that sat on a pedestal in a far corner (the current owner has a bronze of Martin Luther King sitting near the same spot). Dixie Dooley's illustration shows the room was actually subdivided with a paneled wall sectioning off the window area into a small sitting room.
This is the room where I spent the majority of the day. I found myself returning here again and again. This room just felt like "home."
One exciting feature of the parlor was that it still held one of Houdini's original bookcases. However, Beverley informed me that the case did not sit here in Houdini's day. The current owner moved it into the parlor. This case, along with another identical bookcase, sat in Houdini's library in the back of the house on this same level. But that didn't stop me from recreating the photo of Houdini leaning against the bookcase. In fact, almost everyone at the open house took turns in this spot. How could we not?
Because there were two identical bookcases in Houdini's time, one has to wonder if the surviving case is the same one Houdini is leaning against in the photo. Is there some way to tell? Turns out, there is!
One of the open house attendees was Alec Mathieson, a young actor and Houdini buff who recently toured with the musical Ragtime. Looking at the Houdini photo, Alec spotted a strip of missing molding along the top of the bookcase. Our eyes went up and, yes, that same molding is missing from the bookcase in the room. This might have been the discovery of the day. Way to go, Alec!
I was also able to make other positive identifications and recreate a few other famous Houdini photos taken in this room. A chair was sitting in almost exactly the same spot where Houdini took his famous "ectoplasm" pic. (David Jaher, author of the The Witch of Lime Street, was sitting here when I made this match, which I thought was appropriate.) You can also see a chandelier in the background of this photo which still hangs in the house today.
By this time the open house was in full swing. The idea was to only let a handful of people in at a time. I did my best to help Beverley out, but I'm afraid I was pretty bad at my job as I kept wandering away from my post. Also, as Beverley tried to sell visitors on the practical features of the property, I was all too eager to interject that Harry Houdini spewed ectoplasm on this very spot! But I think we were all having fun, and soon Beverley's very nice partner Detria Davu arrived to help.
By the way, at one point I happened to glance at the clock. Look what time it was. Yep.
Beyond the main parlor, in the central connecting hallway/room, are several large closets (original). Across from them is a new spiral stairway that goes down to the 1st Floor kitchen. Dixie Dooley claims this is where Houdini's electric chair once sat. Also in this area there's a large chip of paint peeling from the ceiling, revealing the original black paint underneath. All visitors to 278 describe the parlor as being exceptionally dark, and I can believe it. Beverley told me that along with painting the ceilings, they also whitewashed some of the woodwork to help brighten the house. (But I say put it all back.)
In the back of the 2nd floor is today a master bedroom. In Houdini's time, this was his formal library (again, well described by Haldeman and drawn by Dixie Dooley). This is were the two bookcases sat along the back wall (behind the bed) and is were the famous photo of Houdini was actually taken. Across the room is a fireplace. The below photos are the only two images I captured of this important room, so I've also included the realtor's listing photo for a better look.
The door you see to the right of the windows leads to a modern master bathroom. What was this in Houdini's day? Curiously, Dixie Dooley's illustration shows no room here at all. But the structure of the house suggests there was always a room of some kind. So what gives?
An interesting possibility arose a few days later when Roger Dreyer of the Houdini Museum of New York told me that, according to an unpublished document written by an assistant (who lived for a time in 278 after Houdini's death), Houdini had a "secret room" where he conceived his most important effects. Even the maids were not allowed in this room. Could this have been Houdini's secret room? For some reason, I discovered I had no photos of this room on my phone. Believe.
1st Floor (Garden Level) - Living Room, Kitchen, Backyard.
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Below the 2nd floor parlor is the 1st floor or Garden Level. Here there is a living room with a fireplace. Also in the room sits a piano that Beverley said was original to the house. Like the bookcase, it'll stay with the house. While I took a nice photo of the piano, I did not get a great photo of the room itself, which on this day appeared to be used mostly for storage. So, again, I've added the realtor's image to give a better sense of the room.
This room also has its own street entrance, which I did not explore. But it was here Houdini is said to have smuggled into the house his latest book purchases and hid them in the basement from Bess. Having now seen how relatively cramped 278 is, even when book free, I think I understand Bessie's objections to her husband's chronic collecting.
Behind the living room is the large kitchen area, well described by Marie Blood. While still in the same spot, the kitchen has been entirely modernized. I found I didn't want to be in a room in which I could not feel or see the original in some way, but I did appreciate finding here an ice bucket of bottled waters that Beverley and Detria had brought in for guests. It was a hot day!
Just as in Houdini's time, from the kitchen one exits into the backyard. Here there is a sink original to Houdini's time. Here also sits one of the two original house bathtubs. (The other tub is in the first floor entrance.) Beverley said that both bathtubs are for sale. I did not ask the price, but if you are interested, I'm sure you can contact Beverley or Detria at Douglas Elliman Real Estate and be sudsing up in Houdini's tub in no time.
Remembering Marie Blood's story about chasing the Houdinis turtle "Petie" around the backyard flower beds, it amused me to see this fellow lurking in the leaves. Houdini's bust may have traveled to Las Vegas, but Petie's own immortalized likeness (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) has remained at home.
It was while I was in the backyard that I met the one celebrity magician who attended the open house, Steve Cohen. We had a nice chat, and when Steve told me he was an admirer of Frederick Eugene Powell, I pulled up on my phone a photo of Houdini and Powell standing almost exactly where we were standing at that moment. Of course, we had to take a pic. Thanks to the very nice Tímea Sánta for snapping the below.
The grand finale of the tour would have been Houdini's basement, which continued to yield Houdini treasures into the 1980s. Might there still be undiscovered treasures down there? Unfortunately, the owner had locked the basement door and were were unable to go down, so it looks like this is one part of 278 that will hold onto its secrets...for now.
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I lingered until 3:30 when it was time to lock up. It was hard for me to leave, and I felt genuine sadness as I realized I may never set foot in this house again. So I took one last photo at the front doorway, and then photographed my new friends Beverley and Detria, two wonderful women who gave me the Houdini experience of a lifetime.
To view the official 278 house listing visit Douglas Elliman Real Estate. Stay tuned for more on my 2017 New York Houdini adventure.