Part of the “semi-documentary” style of film-making, The House on 92nd Street is a procedural spy thriller made during the end of World War II. Even though this type of movie can be a bit stilted and monotonous, one signature feature that is incredibly enjoyable is its use of real-life filming locations. While it wasn’t uncommon then for some films to include a few second-unit establishing shots of real locations, House on 92nd was pretty much the first mainstream sound film to be shot predominantly on-location in NYC, including many interior scenes.
The cast is made up of relatively unknown B-movie actors, but most of them give solid performances — the stand-outs being Hitchcock-regular, Leo G. Carroll, character-actor Harry Bellaver, and Swedish actress, Signe Hasso, who plays the cold and calculating German spy to perfection. (There’s also a brief appearance by future 12 Angry Men star, E. G. Marshall as a morgue technician.) Unfortunately, the plot is a bit pell-mell and uninspiring, but director Henry Hathaway (probably best known for helming the noir classic, Kiss of Death, and the John Wayne western, True Grit) manages to intersperse the story with flashes of exciting melodrama.
But again, the best attribute of this film is all of its on-location work done in New York City, along with some additional footage shot in Washington, D.C. (which included actual FBI surveillance footage taken of a German Embassy).
The Car Accident
This filming location has been identified on several movie websites as taking place in Bowling Green. It was just a matter of studying the scene and matching up the buildings on Broadway to figure out the exact spots the action took place.
As you can see in the images above, not a lot has changed over the years. The most noticeable difference is the now-inclusion of the large Charging Bull sculpture on a stone traffic median at the north end of the park.
The Bull was installed there on December 21, 1989 after initially being placed on Wall Street a few days earlier by Italian artist Arturo Di Modica. The Charging Bull was created by Di Modica in response to the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash, at a personal cost of $360,000. He then illegally dropped the 7,100-pound bronze sculpture outside of the New York Stock Exchange Building on December 14th as a Christmas gift for New York. Unfortunately, the gesture wasn’t appreciated by the financial workers who demanded the large statue be removed.
After public outcry demanded the return of the curious art piece, the NYPD brought the Charging Ball back to the neighborhood and had it installed where it stands today. Interestingly, the sculpture is not an official city installation since it’s technically still owned by Di Modica and it only has a temporary permit to stand on city property. However, the “temporary permission” has lasted for over three decades, and the sculpture is as popular a tourist attraction as ever, so the likelihood of the Charging Bull going away anytime soon seems slim.
Arriving From Europe
The establishing shot from the New York Harbor was pretty easy to identify. The skyscrapers and the terminal buildings clearly indicated that we were looking at the South Ferry section of Lower Manhattan.
It might be noted that the Whitehall Staten Island Terminal that appears in this film would be torn down and replaced a decade later, which in turn would be replaced in the early 2000s with what is there now.
Also, all three of the tall, slender skyscrapers that appear in this initial shot are still standing today, but they are mostly obscured by the larger buildings that are situated along the shoreline.
While the movie seems to imply the interior scene was also shot in South Ferry, the terminals in that area were for commuter ferries, so they wouldn’t have had a customs department. That meant the interior scene was most likely shot in one of the luxury liner buildings that ran along the Hudson River. However, figuring out which one seemed like a daunting task.
That’s when my research partner, Jeff Blakeslee, jumped in to help after he spotted a clue in the scene — a few reversed block letters that appeared through the large upper windows. It looked like the letters were S-T-A, and from that, we guessed they were part of the name of the ocean liner company, White Star.
Knowing that White Star used to operate out of numerous piers in New York City (providing both passenger and cargo service), I was skeptical we’d be able to figure out which one was used in this film.
However, Blakeslee was able to reduce the number of possibilities when he discovered that White Star’s passenger liners primarily docked at Piers 54 and 56 in the Meat Packing District. Then, after finding a pair of 1951 photographs of each of the terminals, he noticed that Pier 54 was the only one to have large WHITE STAR lettering affixed to its exterior. Assuming that the buildings looked more or less the same in 1945, we concluded that this scene was probably shot at Pier 54.
Of course, almost everything from the terminal building is now gone (except for the arched metal entranceway), but there’s one distinct structure that appears in this scene that remains today. If you look through the window in the second “before/after” image above, you can see the extant Lackawanna Tower across the river at the Hoboken Train Station in New Jersey, giving further proof that we found the right location.
The House on 92nd Street
Naturally, if there was going to be one location conclusively identified by multiple sources, it was going to be the titular house on “92nd” Street. (Although, surprisingly, a few websites mislabel the location as 55 E 93rd instead of 53.) While it’s hard to know who did the original research to figure out the address of this building, the first reference to this location I could find was in the book, Celluloid Skyline by James Sanders, which was published in 2001.
As many film scholars like to point out, while the movie’s title and story indicate that the spies’ house was on 92nd Street, it was in fact, on 93rd Street. I haven’t found a definitive answer as to why the filmmakers decided to make the change, but because this movie was made at a very tense period, perhaps they presented an inaccurate address to protect the property owners from becoming a target of outraged Americans who thought the building was a real Nazi headquarters.
Curiously, this building featured in this movie seems to be the only one on the block that has since been torn down. The lot is now empty and used as a back entrance to a large apartment building at 1327 Madison Avenue, which was constructed in 1984.
Obviously, the Brooklyn Bridge was the main clue in figuring out where this scene took place. Using the size and perspective of the span, I was able to get a rough estimate of where the camera was positioned. However, since pretty much everything else that appeared in this wide shot has since been torn down, I had a little trouble getting a fix on the exact building from which we were looking out.
Again, judging by the perspective of the Brooklyn Bridge, I determined the most likely candidate was the tower of the Federal Courthouse at Foley Square (known today as the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse). However, the masonry on the tower’s upper floors didn’t seem to match what was in the film. And to add to my frustrations, I couldn’t find any vintage photos of the most prominent building in the wide shot (the center building near the bottom of the frame), making me think I got my orientation wrong.
Finally, Blakeslee was able to track down a ca 1940 tax photo of 409-415 Pearl Street, which seemed to match that elusive building in that wide shot.
After a little digging around, I found out it was the former Scott & Bowne Building, which was completed in 1892, and considered a kind of minor gem of the neighborhood. Sadly, the 12-story office high-rise was torn down only a couple years after this film was made to make way for the Alfred E Smith housing development.
A little later, Blakeslee found a couple written pieces (including a New York Times article) that indicated that the FBI had offices on the 29th floor in the Federal Courthouse at Foley Square. The fact the FBI had actual offices in the courthouse tower helped give credence to the theory that they shot this scene there. That’s because I knew the head of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover (who makes a brief cameo in this movie), gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to its facilities, and that likely included their New York office.
However, the one thing that was still a little inconsistent was the masonry that appeared out the window in this scene. When I looked at modern photos of the tower, it didn’t look like a perfect match.
But I did eventually find one photo taken from the inside looking out that showed a close-up of the building’s stonework, and it looked similar enough to the film to make me feel more satisfied.
I then found another picture from inside the courthouse that showed a set of window panes similar to the ones that appeared in these FBI office scenes, making a stronger case that we got the right place. (Although, I’m still only calling it a 92% certainty.)
Columbus Circle Office
It was obvious this scene took place at Columbus Circle, but it took me a little time to figure out the exact orientation. I could tell the initial wide shot was looking northwest at the Circle from around 58th Street, so at first I thought the building Leo G. Carroll went into was down there, too. But after I realized that that wasn’t the case, I briefly thought they used the American Circle Building at 1 Central Park West (mainly because a movie website listed this filming location there), but I soon rejected that idea.
Finally, I decided to look up Liggett’s Drug Store —whose sign was above the door Carroll went into— in the Manhattan 1946 phone directory in hopes of nailing this location down. Unfortunately, the book didn’t give an exact address, it only listed the drugstore as being at 59th and Columbus Circle. But it was enough to get me in the right direction.
After digging around the NYPL Digital Collection, I found a couple vintage photographs of Columbus Circle that showed 59th Street and what looked like the corner building from this scene. And once I found a 1940 tax photo of the same building in the NYC Municipal Archives, I knew I found the right place, concluding that the scene took place at the northwest corner of 59th and Columbus Circle (which overlapped with Broadway).
What was confusing at first was the fact that the building was on a corner that no longer exists. Before the New York Coliseum was erected on the west side of Columbus Circle in 1956, W 59th Street went all the way through, continuing towards Amsterdam Avenue. But when the Coliseum went up, it took over two street blocks and eliminated that section of 59th. (The Time Warner Building currently sits where the Coliseum used to be.)
Once I was confident I found the right place, I went looking for a better image of the building since the tax photo had a large automobile blocking the door used in this scene. But after searching through several different archives, I couldn’t find anything much better.
Then I remembered that the 1954 romantic comedy, It Should Happen to You had several scenes that took place at Columbus Circle. After checking out a scene where Judy Holliday and Perter Lawford drive around the Circle, I spotted one shot that gave a great straight-on view of the door used in House on 92nd.
One interesting thing about that corner building is that the NYC Municipal Archives lists the address as 1112 Broadway. This is clearly wrong, since the 1100s on Broadway are all the way down near 25th Street. Then, I realized what happened.
When you look at Bromley’s 1930 land book of the area, the corner building has what looks like the number 1112 next to it. But it’s really an 11 and a 12, indicating that these are two addresses for the Columbus Circle thoroughfare. (You can also see a 13 and 14 next to the buildings to the north.) Whoever was in charge of interpreting the map at the Municipal Archives simply squashed two of the numbers together.
All that being said, I believe it’s possible that the side entrance used in the film was technically 301 E 59th Street, even though there’s not a number on the map.
German Spies Roam the Streets
In this short montage, I could tell that each of the spies were at a different location in New York. Of course, I quickly determined the first spy was at Columbus Circle after spotting the American Circle Building in the far background, as well as one of the stone pillars in Central Park. You can see by the image above that this film was shot before the 59th Street subway station at Columbus Circle was expanded to the size that it is today.
I determined that the second spy was somewhere along the East River, based on the large industrial complex that appeared in the background — the kind of place that used to permeate that area. By the looks of the structure, I was pretty sure it was the old Edison Waterside Power Station at E 38th Street, but I wanted to find some photos to confirm it.
The tricky thing was that there were many similar-looking power plants and factories situated along the river, and I’d sometimes find a picture that looked promising, but ended up being of a completely different place. So I had to make sure I was specifically looking at the “Waterside” station on the plot of land between 38th and 40th Streets.
I first investigated the Edison Waterside power station when researching a scene from the 1963 film, Love with the Proper Stranger, which took place at a playground just to the north of it.
Conceived in the late 1890s, the massive, Beaux-Arts style power facility that occupied over 9 acres along the East River began operations in 1901, producing both electricity and steam. Originally powered by coal, the Waterside’s stacks emitted tons of smoke and ash on a daily basis, coating the area with soot and causing health issues for its neighboring residents. Even after the company began transitioning to cleaner fuels, the power station would produce an average of 27,000 pounds of fly ash and 42,000 pounds of sulphur dioxide every day.
As environmentalists put pressure on power companies in the 1960s and 70s to produce cleaner energy, the plants eventually became more efficient, eliminating the need for so many facilities. By 1999, the Consolidated Edison Company decided to make plans to retire and dismantle the Waterside plant, and started taking bids from developers to buy the valuable Manhattan real estate.
On April 29, 2005, after 104 years of service, the Edison Waterside Power Station was decommissioned and the property was sold to real estate tycoon, Sheldon Solow, for $680 million. Even though the facilities were completely demolished in 2007, as of the time of this writing, the lot remains vacant.
For a while, the big issue was that most of the land was zoned for manufacturing, making the city reluctant to allow any developers to cover the site with residential or office buildings. Eventually, a City Council committee rezoned the land for mixed-use, and approved the Solow Building Company’s plans to build several condo and office towers there.
Assuming these plans go through, it will dramatically change New York’s skyline along the East River, and likely ruin the view for the many of residents in the neighboring Tudor City enclave.
As to figuring out the location of the third spy, I immediately recognized the Third Avenue El spur line that connected City Hall to South Ferry. That distinctive S-curve was the telltale sign, letting me know that we were looking north at Coenties Slip from around Jeanette Park.
Fortunately, there are a few key buildings near Water Street that are still standing today, helping me get a good fix on where the action took place. After studying what the area looked like in 1945, I concluded the spy was walking south along the east side of the park, in between Front and South Streets. This was when the park was half the size it is today, bounded by Front Street at the north end.
An interesting building that appeared in this quick scene was the Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street. Founded by a small group of Episcopal men in 1834, the Seamen’s Church Institute began as a floating House of Worship on the East River, anchored in Lower Manhattan. It was created to serve all of the sailors arriving at the port, with the purpose of keeping them healthy, both physically and spiritually.
By 1913, the Seamen’s Church Institute moved out of the water and into the newly-built twelve-story building at 25 South Street, which was briefly featured in this scene.
The building was designed with a distinct nautical theme, with flag masts mounted on the roof, a Sir Galahad figurehead above the front entrance, and a bell salvaged from a wrecked passenger steamer. In 1917, a memorial to the Titanic was placed on the roof of the building, which included a corner lighthouse and a large time ball.
In addition to offices, a medical clinic, food services and a chapel, a good portion of the Seamen’s Church Institute was set up as a hotel and dormitory, which had the capacity to room 580 daily seamen. It became a neighborhood mainstay for visiting seafarers for many decades until the SCI decided to move their facilities to State Street in 1968, allowing the building at 25 South Street to be demolished.
The present NYC Headquarters for the Seamen’s Church Institute is 50 Broadway. The only thing that remains from 25 South Street is the Titanic Memorial which was relocated to the comer of Water and Fulton Streets at the South Street Seaport.
Figuring that this scene was shot somewhere along the East River, I used the skyscrapers and bridge in the background of the opening shot to get my general bearings. Once I determined the bridge was the Brooklyn Bridge, I just looked at possible cross streets in that surrounding area until a found a match, figuring it was most likely a slip since it was fairly wide.
Eventually, I homed in on Catherine Slip which seemed like the correct distance from the bridge to match what appeared in the scene.
Even though I knew the opening shot was at a real NYC location, I admittedly first thought that the tavern exterior was possibly a set built on a studio backlot. It looked a little too perfect for a real NYC waterfront tavern. However, after looking through the NYPL digital collection and Municipal tax archives, I found a few vintage photos showing the corner building at 27 Catherine Slip and they looked like a match.
I also found another photo of a small, free-standing diner across the street, which looked like what appeared behind the two men when they first arrived on the waterfront. You can see they both say, “Mayfair Diner” on the front.
Of course, I’m pretty sure the interiors of the tavern were shot on a set, but it’s nice to know the exteriors were done on-location. Sadly, nothing from that era remains today except for the bridge and skyscrapers in the far distance.
It might be noted that Harry Bellaver, who plays a criminal cab driver in this scene, would play a criminal cab driver again in the 1950 noir picture, Side Street.
Bellaver continued working as a blue collar character-actor into the 1980s, mostly working on NYC productions. His last role was in the 1985 satirical science fiction horror film, The Stuff.
Back at the House
Getting exterior shots like this without attracting the attention of too many onlookers was accomplished by using hidden cameras. This was the same technique used by other filmmakers of the time, like Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend (also released in 1945). However, the one difference is the filmmakers on House on 92nd were getting assistance from the FBI, who offered to loan them the same government vehicles they used to secretly film criminals.
This New Hyde Park location was listed on themoviedistrict.com, and was apparently a contribution from a reader. However, the AFI website provides some varying information about this location. According to the site, studio records indicated that the laboratory scenes were shot at the Nassau Plant in Great Neck, which is about 10-15 miles north of New Hyde Park. It’s possible the website misrepresented the studio records, but it’s also possible that back in 1945, people considered New Hyde Park to be part of the general “Great Neck area.”
The fact that the building looks like a match (albeit with a few updates) seems to indicate that 1111 Marcus Avenue is the correct address. However, it’s possible there was another lab in Great Neck proper that looked the same. Since these were government buildings (film crew and cast members had to be cleared by military authorities to gain access), it’s plausible that they constucted multiple labs in different towns, but from the same design.
While I think this is most likely the correct address, I’m still a little hesitant to call this location definitively confirmed.
Even though it looked like they used two different locations for this scene, I was pretty sure they were fairly close to each other. The one clue that connected the two locations was the elevated train tracks and station, but it didn’t look like the Third Avenue El (which was still in service in 1945).
Judging by the hill, I guessed that they shot this scene near the West Side IRT subway which is above ground at that point. That’s when I realized the initial shot was looking right at Grant’s Tomb, located at 123rd Street in Riverside Park. (The view from Broadway is now obscured by apartment buildings.)
Feeling confident that the stairs near the beauty salon were for the 125th Street elevated station, I searched the 1940’s tax archives to see if I could find a photo of either the salon or the neighboring Esso gas station.
I eventually found a few decent images of the gas station, and one of them also showed the neighboring building that had signage indicating that there was a salon inside. Even though the signage was a little different, it was pretty solid evidence of where this scene took place. And the Esso gas station was a perfect match.
George Washington Bridge
Not much to say about this location. The scene clearly took place on the George Washington Bridge, and it only took me a few seconds to figure out which way they were traveling. Of course, the days of toll booths is practically gone today, where E-ZPass sensors have replaced the booths at almost every NYC bridge and tunnel.
This is one of those scenes that has a pair of street signs in a shot, making the location patently obvious. The one potential hiccup would be if they used fake signs, but after checking out the corner of 49th and Broadway, I could see that they were authentic.
It appears the interiors were shot on location as well, with great views of Times Square from the office window (unless they were using really good rear projection). One of the signs visible from the window was for the Strand Theatre, which was an early movie palace at 1579 Broadway, near 47th Street.
Surprisingly, both buildings on 49th Street that were featured in this scene are still around today (which is particularly unusual for the Times Square area). Although, the corner building was covered in scaffolding when I took the modern picture, so it’s possible it’s being prepped for demolition.
I think this was the first location I found for this film, and it was found fairly quickly.
The voiceover in the film said we were on 59th Street and the awning next to the bookstore had a 125 address on it. So, assuming that the voiceover was accurate, the store was either 123 E 59th or 127 W 59th.
Thinking that it looked more like the east side, I checked that out first and even though a lot of buildings have since been razed and replaced, the Municipal Archives had just released their 1940s tax photos online and I was able to find an image of the building at.123 E 59th Street which matched the film.
Even though I suspected “Lange’s Book Shop” was a fake name, when I found the tax photo, I could see there was a book store there, it just had a different name. According to film noir historian Eddie Muller, in order to use a real NYC retail shop, production was required to post flyers in the neighborhood, clearly stating that any depiction of unpatriotic activities were fictionalized and the bookstore was in no way connected to Nazi spies.
While by no means a classic, The House on 92nd Street is an entertaining film with a slew of great NYC locations, even if it was partly a propaganda piece for the FBI. Producer De Rochemont (who created the in-your-face March of Time news series) helped get the production out of the Hollywood backlots and onto the actual streets of New York and Long Island. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for including the long-winded and a somewhat prosaic voiceover segments in the film, which definitely slows down the pace. But their inclusion was probably how De Rochemont was able to secure the cooperation of J. Edgar Hoover and be allowed to shoot extensively at FBI facilities.
I’m sure the studio heads would’ve preferred production stayed back in Hollywood, but the use of actual locations substantially added to the sense of realism, offering audiences something exciting and new. And this was reflected in the box office. Even though House on 92nd cost around $965,000 to make —which was a little steep for a B-picture— it ended up earning $2.5 million in rentals, making it one of Fox’s biggest money-makers of the year.
The film’s success definitely helped pave the way for more productions to use on-location shooting, such as 1948’s The Naked City and 1950’s Side Street. And since a lot of the footage was taken with hidden cameras, allowing real-life New Yorkers to mix into the action, these films provide us with a great time capsule of what NYC was like 75 years ago.