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.
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!
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.
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 on August 11, 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 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.H." 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 and workroom 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 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 June 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.
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.
|Map showing the location of 278 in Harlem, NYC|
UPDATE: Well, it finally happened. On June 18, 2017 I returned to New York and this time was able to enter the house. For a full report, check out: Inside Houdini's 278.