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Hotel Chelsea is significant for a number of reasons; it was the stomping ground for the likes of Jackson Pollock, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Bob Marley, and Bette Davis, it was the place where Sid Vicious murdered Nancy Spungen, the location where Jack Kerouac penned On the Road, and the set for the sultry photographs included in Madonna‘s Sex book. Within the walls is where artist Yves Klein wrote the “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto,” after a failed exposition during which he sold no paintings and it’s where Nico famously wrote “Chelsea Girls,” about the hotel’s reckless residents. But perhaps most importantly, for the 100 or so years it was fully functional, Hotel Chelsea (also known as Chelsea Hotel or just the Chelsea) stood as a beacon for old New York, a time when artists occupied the drafty lofts of Soho and creative types could actually afford to make it in this city.
During its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, nearly everyone who crossed the hotel’s threshold had a story to tell about it.
“I left a husband [John Cale] in 1969 and went to the Chelsea with a toothbrush,” said Betsey Johnson. “I meant to stay for a couple of days, and I stayed eight months.”
In “Chelsea Hotel No 2,” a song about Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen crooned: “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were famous, your heart was a legend. You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception.”
Patti Smith once recounted, “The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if not in the outside world.”
Opened in 1884 as an experiment by architect Philip Hubert, Hotel Chelsea was Manhattan’s first cooperative building that catered to the personal and professional needs of inhabitants. It was a social experiment of sorts for a mix of the carpenters, electricians, and interior designers who created the place, in addition to a handful of artists, writers, and singers. From its inception, the 12-story building was a haven for creative types and it didn’t take long for the walls of the common spaces—which at the time included dining halls—to become decorated with canvases and murals, some of which were created by the esteemed students of the Hudson River School.
But Hubert’s social experiment quickly went bankrupt and belly up. In 1905, Hotel Chelsea opened its doors to the world, offering luxury accommodations on Manhattan’s West 23rd Street. A few decades later, after plenty of wear and tear, management was forced to lower room prices to mirror the condition of the rooms. That was just what the building needed to be turned into a breeding ground for bohemians and punks.
Longtime manager Stanley Bard was responsible for fostering such an environment. His father, David Bard, purchased Hotel Chelsea in 1940 with the help of investors and passed the 250-unit property onto his son after he died 17 years later. The younger Bard was the one who accepted art in exchange for rent, eventually allowing the canvasses to spill from the marble lobby into the spiral stairwells and checkered linoleum hallways.
“It has always been a place where, because of Stanley, you could do virtually anything short of murder, though that took place too,” admitted composer Gerald Busby, who was a former tenant.
During its glittering peak, day-to-day life at Hotel Chelsea was far from glamorous. Tenants would gather to smoke and drink in the hallways of the Victorian Gothic building, drug use was rampant, and someone was always accidentally setting something on fire. In 1966 Edie Sedgwick fell asleep without blowing out her candles and ended up setting her mattress (and entire apartment) ablaze.
“The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe,” Smith said in her hit book, Just Kids. Indeed, some of the rooms were miniature. That included the cramped single room occupancies that were offered up without kitchens or private bathrooms—instead, communal commodes were shared by multiple residents on each floor. Just a handful of units were sprawling spaces with with elegant crown molding and creaking wood floors. The apartments facing the street were often in high demand; not only did they offer sunlight, but they also offered access to the wrought iron balconies, ideal for hanging off of or spying on neighbors from.
Some of the living quarters were cluttered with antique furniture and various knicknacks surrounding a lavish victorian fireplace, while others boasted stark white walls and minimalist decor. Of course the artists in residence put their own touch on the place; painting walls with paint splatters or a jarring red hue. Just a few rooms were given makeshift renovation by a tenant, like when Viva punched a hole in the wall in a half-hearted attempt to convert two units into one.
The hotel shuttered to visitors in 2011 and after a series of unsuccessful acquisitions, was ultimately purchased five years later by a trio of hoteliers, Richard Born and Ira Drukier, of BD Hotels, and Sean MacPherson, of Bowery Hotel and Jane Hotel. The new owners are in the midst of doing a thorough renovation of the ailing space and plan to reopen it in 2019 as a glittering luxury destination.
In a bid to pay homage to the Hotel Chelsea of yesteryear, they have agreed to leave the abodes of quite a few longtime tenants untouched. Will the new iteration of Hotel Chelsea become a similar barometer of intrigue and art? Only time—and future tenants—will tell.END
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