Monday, November 16, 2015

Setting the record straight on Nikola Tesla's East Houston laboratory.

Note: I have come across a clear photo of the building which housed Tesla's laboratory on East Houston which I present in a more recent post. The evidence that it is, indeed, the correct building is partly based on what is written below.

I have undertaken a fair amount of research regarding Nikola Tesla and 19th century Manhattan for my upcoming thriller, A Predator's Game. (Rook's Page Publishing, March 30, 2016).

In doing so, I've come across a number of articles that purport to pinpoint the location of Tesla's East Houston Street laboratory, its history and what became of it. I'd like to correct some of their errors. In summary, the building where Tesla had his East Houston laboratory stood from 1895 to 1929.

Let's have some background. On March 13, 1895, Tesla lost all of his work in a fire at his previous laboratory.

By a fire which almost completely gutted the six-story and basement building at 33 and 35 South Fifth avenue, this city, on March 13, Mr. Nikola Tesla, the electrician, lost all of the apparatus with which he has been carrying on his professional experiments. He occupied the entire fourth floor. When the floor gave way his apparatus fell to the second story where it lay in unrecognizable ruin. It was not insured. March 20, 1895, Electrical Engineer Magazine, p. 275 as presented at Tesla Universe.

As described in W. Bernard Carlson's biography of Tesla: "With his depression finally waning, Tesla rented a new laboratory on two floors of a building at 46 East Houston Street in July 1895." Carlson, W. Bernard. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (p. 218). Princeton University Press.

This address is referred to as 46-48 E. Houston in Tesla's correspondences. The address was located on the north side of E. Houston just east of the corner of Mulberry and two blocks from Broadway.

This was a new seven story building. Tesla's laboratory occupied the two upper floors. Liana Grey, of, did some excellent research into the past history of this section of street. In 1894, the building occupying this space was torn down. It was called "Dramatic Hall" and had descended from theater to dance hall to "a nightly abode of an army of tramps."

Grey quotes extensively from an 1894 Daily Tribune article about the destruction of Dramatic Hall and the plans for the new building:

Workmen yesterday began to tear down the four story building on the north side of Houston Street midway between Mulberry and Mott Streets, which was a well-known place of amusement in war times when the next block in Houston Street was known as "murderer's row." The building was called "Dramatic Hall" for 20 years after the war, although it degenerated to a dance hall with a bar-room on the first floor, and regular theatrical performances disappeared from the place forever. Several years ago, it was turned into a cheap lodging house and became the nightly abode of an army of tramps, fairly earning the significant name of "Scratch Hall." It became such a breeding place for disease that the Health Board revoked its license. In late years it had been occupied as a furniture warehouse. A seven-story business structure is to be erected on the site of the old building.

Interestingly, one of the more famous 19th Century/early 20 Century addresses in Manhattan was just around the corner: 300 Mulberry Street. This was the central police headquarters and in the mid-1890s housed the office of the president of the police board, Theodore Roosevelt.

So, with this as background, let's look at the maps. First, here is 1891 Manhattan. This would have been at the time of Dramatic Hall and before the new seven story building was built.

Illustration from: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1891 Pl. 8. The David Rumsey Map Collection.

The street bisecting the page top to bottom is Mulberry. Note the numbering of the north side of E. Houston "42" and "48." In this map, Dramatic Hall would have been the third building from the corner. Note also, the police department on Mulberry. At this time it connects to the Health Department and spans the block. It is bordered by St. Barnabas chapel and across the street from San Salvatore church. (Also across the street from the police station was the New York press station for reporters.)

Secondly, here is 1897 Manhattan. This would have been after the new building was built and occupied by Tesla. Now that the Dramatic Hall is gone, two large buildings fill the space from 42 to 48 East Houston. Tesla's laboratory, 46-48 (highlighted in green), is the second from the corner. Also, the Police Department expanded to take over the Health Department building.

From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1897 Pl. 23. New York Public Library Archives.

Next, here is 1899 Manhattan. What a difference two years make. Elm Street plowed over most of the buildings in back of the west side of Mulberry Street eliminating San Salvatore Church. Greater New York consolidated into one city in 1898.Tesla's laboratory is again highlighted in green.

From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1899 Pl. 23. New York Public Library Archives.

Interestingly, fire followed Tesla here. (No, they were not caused by his electrical experiments.) In this article from 1900:

Fire in the seven-story building at 46-48 East Houston street early Thursday morning damaged many of the early delicate models and machines in the laboratory of Nikola Tesla, the inventor. What the damage is cannot be told yet, as Mr. Tesla, who is South for his health, is the only one who knows their value. Western Electrician Magazine, March 17, 1900, p. 179.

There are other maps to be found over the next three decades, but these two describe what happened to the buildings.

From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1927 Pl. 23. New York Public Library Archives.

Above, in 1927, 46-48 E. Houston is intact. Police headquarters moved out in 1909 and has been replaced by Traffic Court.

 From: Bromley, George Washington. Atlas of the city of New York, Manhattan Island. 1930, Pl. 23. New York Public Library Archives.

Above, in 1930, the buildings along the north side of East Houston are razed to widen the street and lay down a subway line underneath. In case there is any doubt as to the nature of the white spaces, let's take a look at some photos and illustrations from the times.

I have not found any direct photos of the north side of East Houston at the time when Tesla's laboratory was there. There are, however, photos and illustrations of 300 Mulberry Street, Police Headquarters. First to make clear this distinct building was indeed 300 Mulberry Street and Police Headquarters, here is an illustration from 1868.

Police Headquarters, 1868.

Let's look at a later illustration.

Police Headquarters, 1887. New York City Public Library Archives.

The above illustration is dated 1887. It seems likely that the building on the right-hand side and in the background is the Dramatic Hall. It is four stories as the above news story describes and is set back from what would be the corner of Mulberry and East Houston.

 Let's look that as a photo. This is from 1913. Now on the extreme right, set back from Mulberry, we have a seven story building. This contains Tesla's laboratory on its sixth and seventh floors, seen only as a sliver in the back of the nearer building.

300 Mulberry, Post card. 1910. From New York City Public Library Archives.

Pay attention to the now former police headquarters. Below is a photo of the building in 1934. The buildings on the right side have been razed (as shown in the 1930 map), along with Tesla's laboratory.

North side of East Houston looking east past the corner of Mulberry. The former Police Headquarters is now at the corner of the street.

Below is a drawing of the area from a "Bird's Eye" perspective, 1904. Tesla's laboratory building is highlighted in yellow.

Excerpted from: Bird's Eye View of New York City, 1904. New York Public Library. 

Part Two: Tesla's Grand Street Laboratory. (Substantial new material added: November 23, 2015)
Part Three: Tesla's South Fifth Avenue Laboratory.
Part Four: Tesla's Liberty Street Laboratory.
Part Five: A Clear Photo of the Building that Housed Tesla's East Houston Laboratory.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, Rook's Page Publishing, features Nikola Tesla as a detective.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook editions through Amazon and other online retailers.

His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at


  1. Hi! That is the finish of this post.Most perfect product this for eye scanner and very nice post, i definitely love this web site, carry on it.The above illustration is dated 1887. It seems likely that the building on the right-hand side and in the background is the Dramatic Hall. It is four stories as the above news story describes and is set back from what would be the corner of Mulberry and East Houston.Vestvox is a crowd sourced commercial real estate marketplace that helps brokers, investors and tenants discover, market, purchase and lease on a value driven platform. Rent A Warehouse

    1. Thank you for the feedback. The illustration immediately above was dated 1904 at the New York Public Library site. However, Lafayette should have shaved off a good portion of the buildings west of Mulberry north of Houston by then. It may have been made in 1904 but based on earlier information. Another bit of conflicting information is that the buildings on the north side of Houston and east of Mulberry are the correct height for the buildings built after the Dramatic Hall was torn down.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks. I have a bias when it comes to the internet. I love getting to the bottom of things over just having an opinion or mucking around.

      I hope to have some more posts soon. I have some grant-writing underway now.

  3. A patent registered by Nikola Tesla and recently discovered shows that the great engineer was long before the era in which he lived.

  4. We attended an event here this past Sunday & had an awesome experience from beginning to end. They served great food and the salad I had for dinner was delicious. The service at Seattle venues was impeccable.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Did anyone ever discover, or have an idea, about what may have caused the Houston St. laboratory fire?