The Great Escapist: A Story of an Immigrant and a Showman

America has long been known as the land of opportunity. The country welcomed people looking for jobs, religious freedom, and a better future. But while most immigrants in New York City entered the traditional workforce, some paved their own, more unique paths to the American Dream.

One such individual was Erich Weisz. We’ve all heard of him… Born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He was one of seven children born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his wife Cecilia. In search of work, the family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. They continued to struggle, and Erich and his father eventually moved to New York City in 1887. While working in a necktie factory, Erich partnered with a friend, Jacob Hyman, to create a magic act, and soon after they hit the road. A fan of the ground-breaking French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin, Erich took on a professional name that both played upon his nickname Ehrie, and paid tribute to his idol. Before long, Erich Weisz was being welcomed to the stage as Harry Houdini.

Dubbed “The Brothers Houdini,” Harry and Jacob performed in dime museums and small theaters in New York and throughout the Midwest, making a stop at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago. In the summer of 1894, while Harry and his younger brother (who eventually replaced Jacob at his side) were performing in Coney Island, Harry met 18-year-old Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner – or“Bess”. Three weeks later, they married, and Bess joined the act.

Harry and Bess and the bonds of love. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry and Bess and the bonds of love. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry and Bess caught their first big break in 1899, when they met Martin Beck, who incorporated Harry’s handcuff escapes in vaudeville shows around the country. Harry, not only a master performer but also a skillful promoter, would perform escapes for free in public spaces in order to sell tickets to his shows. The public spectacles would draw tens of thousands of people, and Harry would make sure to add dramatic flair. Audiences were amazed, and as vaudeville gained in popularity, Harry Houdini became a star.

The man, the legend. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

The man, the legend. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

After building his reputation in America, Harry spent five years touring Europe before returning to the States where he continued to reinvent himself. He performed more challenging escapes, including his signature Milk Can escape and Chinese Water Torture trick. His tricks became more dangerous – mid-air suspensions and underwater escapes – relying more on his physical strength and technical abilities.

The early 20th century brought on new challenges for Harry, who began starring in films. In his first film, The Master Mystery, which came out in 1918, Harry brought his magic to the big screen. He founded two film companies – which never gained success –  and in 1923 took over as president of Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company. Throughout the 1920s, Harry also became a leading critic of spiritualists and psychic mediums; he did not believe their claims of being connected with the spiritual world, but viewed them as skilled performers much like himself.

One of Houdini's most famous escapes. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

One of Houdini’s most famous escapes. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Harry continued to perform until 1926, when he took his successful Broadway show on the road. While backstage at a stop at McGill University in Montreal, a student challenged Harry’s claim that he was strong enough to handle any blow, and punched him three times in the abdomen. Harry continued with two more days of shows, but died a few days later in Detroit of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. He was 52.

As Harry Houdini’s birthday approaches this Thursday, let’s remember him not only for his physical strength and masterful sleight of hand, but also as an immigrant. In many ways Houdini’s is just another  immigrant success story. With hunger for acceptance and financial stability he worked hard to find a niche in his new home. Unlike some, Houdini ‘s niche turned out to be escaping from a straitjacket while hanging from his feet  four stories above the ground. On March 24th remember to pay tribute to immigrants who thought outside the box!

A star in his own right, Houdini would later be the subject of many biographies and films. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

A star in his own right, Houdini would later be the subject of many biographies and films. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

 

—Posted by Tricia Kang, Tenement Staffer

Five Stories and Counting: The History of 97 Orchard Street in Five Terms

You may ask yourself, okay – what is a Tenement anyway? So we’ve defined the building at 97 Orchard Street in 5 words. And yes, this may come in handy at the bar.

Nathalie Gumpertz was one of the residents with which Lucas Glockner formed a close and supportive relationship. When Nathalie fell on hard times Glockner, rather than evicting her provided help.

Nathalie Gumpertz was one of the residents with which Lucas Glockner formed a close and supportive relationship. When Nathalie fell on hard times Glockner, rather than evicting her provided help.

Landlord: The landlord of 97 Orchard Street was also its developer. In 2016, it is more common for a real estate developer to buy a plot of land and ‘develop’ it by building one or several structures that will be attractive to buyers, or to landlords who will buy the property to rent it out. Lucas Glockner bought the plot of land on which 97 Orchard Street now stands, ultimately developing it, renting it, and playing the roles we think of today as landlord and building manager. Historians who work with us to uncover the building’s past have hypothesized that Glockner probably did not use an architect because the style of housing he built – a tenement – was so common and so standard that building crews knew just how to quickly put one up. Glockner was not a wealthy man but he had a little more solvency than the new German immigrants who were just arriving. Chances are he borrowed some money from German immigrant bankers who were, in turn, just a little more financially stable. Glockner even moved his family from St. Mark’s Place (8th Street) to Orchard Street in order to keep a closer eye on the property. This proximity also resulted in some real relationships with his tenants, including helping them in times of dire need. Visitors can learn more about this when taking the Hard Times tour offered daily at the Museum.

 

Our Tenement at 97 Orchard is pretty special, partly because it is a surviving example of what was once an extremely common housing structure in New York.

Our Tenement at 97 Orchard is pretty special, partly because it is a surviving example of what was once an extremely common housing structure in New York.

Tenement: The term “tenement” really just refers to a building housing three or more unrelated families. However, in part because of the history of the Lower East Side, this term has become synonymous with a “slum,” or substandard housing built for the poor. But that’s not how 97 Orchard Street started. The tenement and others like it were built to maximize housing. At the time, three-story buildings were most common and Glockner’s tenement and those around it would have seemed like high rises. New German immigrants would have been happy to see the buildings however, because at the time the alternative was to divide and subdivide a three-story home. In this new model, each family had an apartment and kitchen to themselves. This was great!

These cornice models were most likely originally inspired by Roman stone carving. Though made of metal, our cornice would have maintained the styles and themes of much grander stone-carved cornices. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

These cornice models were most likely originally inspired by Roman stone carving. Though made of metal, our cornice would have maintained the styles and themes of much grander stone-carved cornices. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Cornice: The cornice, or the crown, of the building was one of the only parts of the Tenement that would have been required by law. Buildings taller than three stories could not have a wooden cornice which is why the cornice at 97 is made from metal. The cornice was meant to prevent stray bricks from falling off the building – hence it was required by law! Long an opportunity for architectural flourish, the cornice on more expensive buildings would have been carved from stone. The cornice on 97 Orchard was metal painted brown. Sand would have been mixed into the brown paint while it was still wet to make it look like brownstone.

This view of East 48th Street shows the evolution of a city block. The building in the center of the frame has a brownstone front and is probably the oldest based on the material used and its height. It is surrounded by a brick-fronted and a glass-fronted building. Courtesy of the NYPL.

This view of East 48th Street shows the evolution of a city block. The building in the center of the frame has a brownstone front and is probably the oldest based on the material used and its height. It is surrounded by a brick-fronted and a glass-fronted building. Courtesy of the NYPL.

Brownstone: So how did the word “brownstone” get on this list? Most people associate the word with grand old city homes appreciating in value. Brownstone actually applies to the kind of stone popular with builders at the time that a lot of urban housing was being built. The term refers to brown-colored sandstone from the banks of the Connecticut River. In the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street, hardly any brownstone was used. Brick was still a cheaper building material as they were made locally. Brownstone was used for lintels – that is the beam over an opening, be it a door or window. The brownstone lintels in 97 Orchard Street seem to have been sanded off, perhaps because they were already showing wear and tear.

This image was taken by the New York City Tenement House Department in around 1902 most likely to contribute to health code regulation and enforcement. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

This image was taken by the New York City Tenement House Department in around 1902 most likely to contribute to health code regulation and enforcement. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

Plot: the tenement is built on what was at the time an extremely standard lot: 25 ft. x 88.6 ft. 97 Orchard Street consists of five stories, with four apartments of approximately 325 sq. ft. on each floor. The Tenement takes up 68 of the 88.6’ of the lot. This is to leave room for a rear yard. Hardly a generous gesture, the rear yard was a necessity as it housed an outhouse and a water pump, the only source of water for the saloon and all the apartments. The shared pump situated so close to the outhouses was one of the many threats of illness for residents of 97 Orchard Street. It is important to remember that Glockner was not setting out to subject his tenants to inferior conditions. In the 1840’s only the wealthiest households would have had a nascent sort of indoor plumbing. Only in 1865 were laws passed to introduce general sewage. The Tenement, however, was about to become the most common form of housing, and its residents were soon to increase. With many more people living in the apartments than was originally intended and with many more people living in the neighborhood than ever before, population density soon overtook the modest hygiene systems in place. Tours at the Tenement Museum show visitors several evolution of the building. Immense changes have been implemented both by requirement and by default over the years. The 1901 Housing Law introduced several new health and safety requirements but 97 Orchard probably received indoor plumbing around 1904. Eventually, electricity also came to the building, but finally the government required changes that the landlord could not sustain. The building was condemned for these reasons in 1935, but that’s only half the story.

Come visit us on Thursday nights and take the Exploring 97 Orchard tour. Come hear all about the double life of the Tenement Museum, before it was condemned and as it began its journey to becoming an immigration museum.

—-Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

SURRENDER : Movie Theatres in the Lower East Side

metrograph

I was 13 years old and I remember stopping at the old Kossar’s on Grand Street, buying half a dozen warm bialys in a brown paper bag, and going next door to the Essex Theatre on a Saturday afternoon. Snuggled into my seat smack in the middle of the theatre, I bit into a warm bialy as the opening credits began to roll for Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof. The Essex is long gone and today a community health care facility stands in its place. I often wonder where all those cinematic ghosts and shadows have gone. I often wonder where the thrill of going to a theatre, seeing the lights dim and the curtains part, and that tickle that rises in your stomach that something magical was going to happen has gone. Continue reading

The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Gibson on vacation

Images of the idealized Gibson Girl created by Charles Dana Gibson. This image was published in May of 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With the boom of the ready-to-wear garment industry, American artist Charles Dana Gibson personified what he believed was the standard of American female beauty. A woman with a long neck, a pompadour hair-do, tall and slender, with curvaceous hips and bust, adorned in a shirtwaist. Shirtwaists, which were originally modeled from the men’s shirt fashion of the time, were functional, ready-to-wear, and signified an independent, American woman. Upper-class American women were often identified as the classic Gibson girl; however, women across socio-economic classes were wearing, and making shirtwaists. Many immigrant women were employed in the garment industry, working long hours for low wages, often in unsafe working conditions. Continue reading

All the Right Notes: A History of Hazel Scott

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

Hazel Scott poised, as always behind a piano. Photo courtesy of WQXR.

In honor of Black History Month, we are paying tribute to Hazel Scott, one of the most talented pianists of the 20th century. An immigrant, born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Hazel moved with her mother and grandmother at the age of three to meet her destiny in New York. Though born abroad, Hazel’s talent, resolve, and dignity led her to break through the barriers of expectation for a woman of color in the United States. Continue reading

Shop Around the Corner: A Tale of Rising Commercial Rents

A photo collage of the East Village in the Early 1990s by Bill Barvin. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

A photo collage of the East Village in the Early 1990s by Bill Barvin. An apt method of portrayal for a mosaic of a neighborhood. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

One marker of New York’s changing neighborhood is the closure of the East Village haunt, St. Mark’s Bookshop…. Or is it?

The end of St. Mark’s Bookshop is an easy harbinger of doomsday from a certain perspective: if an independent bookstore cannot survive in what was once one of New York’s edgiest neighborhoods, then the independent spirit of urban culture is done for. Small shops represent the kind of niche identity that was once a marker of urban life. In a city of around 8,491,079 why not have a shop specializing in just vegan cosmetics, or just rubber stamps.  New York observers have stressed the grim news that these smaller shops are closing due in part to rocketing commercial property values. Continue reading

Love At The Tenement

 We found love at 97 Orchard. Well, we found a love letter. “Nobody can keep us apart,” it reads and it’s signed, “Your own, only-est.”

The museum discovered the pieces of the handwritten note in 1993. The letter, which instructs its reader to pack a suitcase and listen for the “usual whistle,” and continues with plans for running off to elope, was likely written in the 1910s or 20s. We don’t know who wrote it or whom it was for, but what is clear is the author was crazy about their object of affection.

This Friday night we open the Tenement Museum to tell the stories of how our former tenants found and experienced love in our Love at the Tenement program. Love letters, courtship and dating rituals, and marriage traditions give us a clearer picture of their relationships. Whether it was love at first sight or a matchmaker’s delight, the program explores love in its many forms. Continue reading

The Once and Future Penn Station: Part II

The bandaid that wasn't enough. This image shows the "clamshell" designed by architect Lester Tichy in 1956. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The bandaid that wasn’t enough. This image shows the “clamshell” designed by architect Lester Tichy in 1956. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You may have seen the pictures of Penn Station before it went down. In fact, rushing through its windowless corridors,  you may have seen the posters mounted just below the low paneled ceiling of the old, grand station.  In a daze you might stand there, as your train leaves the station, wondering about what might have been: that the Penn Station of the past is in pieces in a land fill in Jersey. Continue reading

A Monument to Impermanence: The Death and Life of New York’s Penn Station

The graceful balustrades and soaring ceiling of the original Penn Station, designed by the architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

The graceful balustrades and soaring ceiling of the original Penn Station, designed by the architecture firm, McKim, Mead & White. Image courtesy of the NYPL.

It  was lavish, grand, spectacular. It was marble and granite built in the classical style but it wasn’t a hotel and it wasn’t  a mansion. It was a train station and everyone was welcome. Every generation gets the Pennsylvania Station it deserves. The original grand NeoClassical Penn Station was torn down in 1961 to make way for Madison Square Garden with commuter and train platforms in its bowels. Continue reading

As Time Goes By: 1935 on the Lower East Side

The evolution of New York Streets is thrown into stark relief in this image from 1935 taken by Berenice Abbott as part of the Federal Art Project. Courtesy of the NYPL.

The evolution of New York Streets is thrown into stark relief in this image from 1935 taken by Berenice Abbott as part of the Federal Art Project. Courtesy of the NYPL.

In many ways, the year 1935 was the end of an era for a tenement building at 97 Orchard Street on New York City’s Lower East Side.  After almost a century of acting as a threshold to the New World, the building was condemned when the landlord was unwilling or unable to incur the costs of mandatory structural updates.  This is not to say that the building was completely empty; as recently as the 1980’s there were various storefronts that continued to operate on the ground floor. This story was repeated all over the Lower East Side, keeping the neighborhood in business: literally. The communities who once lived in the neighborhood continued to run businesses and shop the area maintaining a vibrant immigrant hub. As a community of immigrants, Lower East Side has been especially impacted by global events, and though 1935 saw the shuttering of 97 Orchard Street, it also saw enormous changes across the country and around the world. Continue reading