Revisiting the History of Nikola Tesla’s Lower East Side Laboratories on East Houston and Grand Street

Posted on: January 8th, 2014 at 11:12 am by

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46 E. Houston with old Playstation billboard, c. Sept. 2008

My co-worker at Boogie loves her some Tesla (we’re not talking about the band). She said that we really needed to tell his story on the Lower East Side. It was good timing, since yesterday was the 71st anniversary of his death. But there’s more to the Tesla name than Christopher Nolan’s 2006 The Prestige and the Palo Alto luxury motor company. Let’s have a look.

First, some basics. From the Nikola Tesla Museum in Serbia (where he was born and raised; he came to NY in 1884):

Scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla held nearly 300 patents in 26 countries. His contributions range from the alternating current (AC) motor to x-rays, remote controls and fluorescent lighting. Tesla’s Wonderful World of Electricity presents working models of his inventions, models of his laboratories and plants, photographic reproductions, and a narrative about Tesla’s life and work.

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Nikola Tesla altogether had three laboratories located in New York City: 175 Grand Street, 33-35 South Fifth Avenue (now called LaGuardia Place), and another at 46 East Houston. Today, we’ll focus on the two Lower East Side locations.

1891, 1895, 1896 or 1897. Take your pick, because sources can’t agree on the exact year that Nikola Tesla established his laboratory at 46 and 48 East Houston (aka 300 Mulberry Street).

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Photo: NYPL

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Lucky for us history nerds, there’s a bevy of documentation surrounding Tesla’s time in the city. For instance, here’s a letter from Tesla himself referencing his lab on Houston Street, dated February 1896:

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The Nikola Tesla Treasury, by Nikola Tesla

Here are accounts regarding Tesla opening up his lab at 46 Houston:

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Nikola Tesla, A Spark of Genuis, Carol Dommermuth-Costa

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Nikola Tesla, A Spark of Genuis, Carol Dommermuth-Costa

However, before Tesla arrived at 46 Houston, the building was famous for all the wrong reasons, thanks to notorious establishments like “Dramatic Hall” and “Scratch Hall:”

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NY SUN 1882 Scratch Hall

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Dramatic Hall, NYT April 24 1863

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Dramatic Hall

From the New York Tribune:

Dramatic Hall Torn Down

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.

Charles Hemstreet’s Nooks & Corners of Old New York tells us more about this location, and in particular, the so-called Murderer’s Row:

Murderer’s Row has its start where Watts Street ends at Sullivan, midway of the Block between Grand and Broome Streets. It could not be identified by its name, for it is not a ‘row’ at all, merely an ill-smelling alley, an arcade extending through a block of battered tenements. After running half its course through the block, the alley is broken by an intersecting space between houses—a space that is taken up by push carts, barrels, tumble-down wooden balconies and lines of drying clothes. “‘Murderers’ Row’ is celebrated in police annals as a crime centre. But the evil doers were driven out long years ago and the houses given over to Italians. . . Constant complaints are made that the houses are hovels and the alley a breeding-place for disease.”

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1916, NYPL

Certainly a fitting dramatic history for Tesla to walk into.

The lab Tesla occupied at 46 East Houston resided inside the replacement building, which was constructed on the rubble of the Dramatic.

Spin right ’round back to the man – Tesla was a visionary in wireless technology.  It was at 175 Grand Street that he developed the high-voltage, high-frequency transformer called the Tesla Coil.

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Coil with Tesla

Not sure reading a book surrounded by bolts of electricity is my idea of a good time or a good idea…

Anyway, Tesla relished in giving demonstrations to friends including an architect of McKim, Mead & White, “the frontrunner among Beaux-Arts firms” responsible for many of New York’s most stunning and famous buildings – Stanford White. Also of note, in 1888, he was allegedly to blame for an earthquake that shook the Lower East Side, with an invention that caused tremors in the earth through the transmission of vibrations.

White’s last creation was part of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe laboratory. He was also responsible for the Bowery Savings Bank (yippee!), Washington Square Arch, the original Madison Square Garden among many others. Having had a less-than-discreet affair with Evelyn Nesbit, White was shot and killed by her husband, Harry Thaw.

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Evelyn Nesbit

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Stanford White

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1904

I have a point. The Famous Tesla Tower was erected in Shoreham, Long Island by W.D. Crow, an associate of White. The tower was 187 feet high, the spherical top was 68 feet in diameter.  The Tower, which was to be used by Nikola Tesla is his “World Wireless” was never finished. Stanford White designed the main building.

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He also forged a friendship with literary genius, Mark Twain. The two became close friends after Tesla allegedly cured the author’s chronic constipation by having him stand on an electric plate and running a charge though his body. According to various accounts, the shaking and vibrating caused Twain to have intense bowel movements. Lovely.

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Mark Twain in Tesla’s Lab in 1894, Originally published by T.C. Martin in Century Magazine (April 1895)

Tesla spent his last years in the hotel “New Yorker,” where he died on January 7, 1943 in room 3327. He died alone and penniless in his sleep.  That fact is rather difficult to fathom since he was regarded as one of the most influential pioneers of his time.

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Plaque in the New Yorker. Room 3327

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NYT 1943: Tesla’s Obituary

Meanwhile, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is fundraising to develop Tesla’s last (and only remaining) laboratory in Shoreham into a science and technology center.

A fitting conclusion: upon presenting Tesla with the Edison medal, Vice President Behrend of the Institute of Electrical Engineers:

Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the result of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark and our mills would be idle and dead.  His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science… Nature and nature’s laws lay hid by night. God said ‘Let Tesla be’ and all was light.

Light and the Lower East Side! He could have chosen any other ‘hood, but he didn’t.  Ties knotted, ’til next time.

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