Friday, June 8, 2018

New 278 owners committed to preserving Houdini history

Last month came news that Houdini's New York brownstone had sold. This is the first time the house has changed hands in 27 years. Fred Thomas, the previous owner, had converted the house to apartments, adding some walls and closing off spaces. But as we discovered at last year's open house, many of the original details and woodwork survived, especially on the parlor level. It was still recognizably Houdini's 278.

Over the past year, Houdini fans everywhere held their collective breaths. Who would buy the house and what would they do with it? One fear was that it would sell to a developer who might gut it and complete its transformation into an apartment building. As the house did not have any historic protection, it could have even been leveled in favor of modern construction. This would have not only been a crime against Houdini history, but to New York history as well.

Well, the good news is the new owners (a family) are thrilled to have Houdini's house, and are committed to preserving all the history that remains. They will even restore some of what's been lost. They tell me:

"It’s very important to us historic elements are preserved and to clean throughout but update only in areas where Fred already modernized."

To achieve this, they are bringing in an architect and a contractor. Already they've uncovered some of the original flooring. They've also discovered, stored in the cellar, the original doorway into Houdini's parlor level library. That will be restored. The white paint on the tin ceilings will be removed. The modern spiral staircase in the parlor hallway will be covered over, restoring the original floor-plan. They've also found some original sinks stored in the basement that will be refurbished.

But maybe their most mysterious discovery so far is a large brass skeleton key which does not seem to fit any door. Should we try this on the Water Torture Cell or Double Fold chest? Paging David Copperfield!

The family, who are fast becoming Houdini fans themselves, are also hoping to confirm or debunk some of the myths about the house. Was there really a secret passageway to the cafe on the corner? Do the walls contain hidden spaces to conceal assistants? Does any wiring from Houdini's famous "bugging" system remain?

As for any ghosts, well, the wife is a cancer immunology researcher and she says, "The only supernatural forces I believe in is the magic of the immune system making cancer disappear."

The house will remain private so the firm Do Not Disturb policy that we all respected when Fred owned the house remains in effect. The owners say this is "simply for the safety and privacy of our family, not any disrespect for the community."

So we can all breath a sigh of relief that 278 now has caring and committed owners, and the Houdini history contained within those walls is as safe as the days when Houdini himself walked the hallways.



  1. This is great news! I’m so relieved and overjoyed for the new owners. This made my day!!!

  2. Great news! And that skeleton key is very interesting. What kind of lock would need such a long key?

  3. John, this is the most wonderful news! Thank you so much, and I salute and thank the new owners for not only preserving and protecting such a significant part of Americana, but in graciously sharing the news of their decision. Just fantastic!

  4. Good to hear about the preservation. A Cancer immunologist, I wonder if it is someone I

  5. Devi Detroit -- I'm sorry I have not approved your 3 comments, but I'm not comfortable providing links to building permits, etc., that contain personal information. Hope you understand. But I do want to answer your question: "Did they ever do anything to 'preserve the history' here?"

    The answer is a most definite "yes." If you look around the blog you'll find a few updates. I have also become very close with the owners and they have been giving me updates and providing photos every step of the way. Much of it has been about returning what had been taken away, such as the doorway to Houdini's office. They've become Houdini fans themselves and have even changed plans to preserve things such as the windows we see behind HH in the famous photo at his desk.

    Everything original remains and has been restored, and what was long gone replaced as it was with period correct materials. There have been some modernizations, such as a new bathroom and kitchen, but you can't begrudge them that!

    It's been a BIG job and work continues, but 278 is now back to being the brownstone and private home it was in Houdini's day. If anyone else had bought 278 it would have been gutted and rebuilt from scratch, which was something the new owners were encouraged to do and they said "no." They saved 278. :)