“The finest private house that any magician has ever had the great fortune to possess” - Harry Houdini (7).
This brownstone was home to Harry Houdini from 1904 until his death in 1926 (1). When the Houdinis bought the house in 1904, it was valued at nearly $640,000 (adjusted for inflation in 2018) (4). In 2018 the home was sold for $3.6 million. When the Houdinis moved here in 1904, Harlem was a fashionable Jewish neighborhood. In fact, around the time of the First World War, Harlem was the third largest Jewish settlement after the Lower East Side and Warsaw (5). In some respects this building was more than simply a house; for an immigrant that grew up in the tenements – striking it big in New York and moving to a fashionable brownstone was nothing short of the American Dream realized.
The house, originally built in 1895, reportedly featured some quirky add-ons, installed at the magician’s orders. For example, Houdini had a giant sunken bathtub installed and a large eight-foot mirror that he could use to practice his underwater escapes (6). Houdini also had the entire house wired for sound. The subtle sound effect allowed Houdini to impress visitors with his mind-reading illusions. Houdini lived in this house with his wife, mother, and his fox terrier, Bobby (8). Curiously, Houdini even managed to train Bobby to escape from dog-sized handcuffs and strait jackets.
The property was large enough for Houdini to house his collection of books on spiritualism and magic. He once said, “Someday when I’m too old to perform, I’ll spend my time writing about magic. And I won’t have to search for source material. It will be here” (7). His collection grew so extensive that he hired help to catalogue the books – this vast collection was so impressive that it was preserved and may now be found in the Library of Congress (8).
Known widely as Harry Houdini, the man who owned this house was actually born as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874 in Budapest (2). His father was a rabbi who initially moved the family to Wisconsin. Weisz moved to New York City with his family in 1882 (2). In his early years, Houdini performed without much success. However by the early 1900s he began to earn some acclaim as an escape artist. “In a typical act he was shackled with chains and placed in a box that was locked, roped, and weighted. The box was submerged from a boat, to which he returned after freeing himself underwater” (2). Houdini’s acts became famous worldwide and his performances were watched by many thousands of people.
In spite of his own fame as a magician, Houdini worked to debunk mystics and those who claimed to have supernatural abilities (2). Houdini published two books on the subject Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). However, Houdini and his wife were open to the possibility of the supernatural and pledged to make an experiment between themselves – whichever should die first would attempt to contact the surviving partner as a spirit (2). Houdini died on Halloween of 1926. He had performed a show only one week earlier and was rushed to the hospital afterwards due to an apparent case of appendicitis. (3). Later in 1943, Houdini’s wife Bess stated that the experiment to communicate from the great beyond had been a failure (2).
Although Houdini became world famous, he was a New Yorker at his core. He grew up an anonymous immigrant living in a New York tenement, then eked out a living in the Garment District, and later tried to make a name for himself in the music halls of the Bowery and Coney Island (8). After rising to fame, he moved to this brownstone and played at the greatest theaters in Times Square (8). Somewhere along the journey from nothing to something, this house appeared as the physical manifestation of an American Dream.