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The Chelsea Hotel of NYC, surviving The Great Depression, fires, deaths, but maybe not a change of ownership
August 6, 2011 9:49 PM   Subscribe

Late July 2011, would-be guests of the historic and storied Chelsea Hotel (also known as Hotel Chelsea or simply The Chelsea) were informed on their reservations were suddenly canceled, in preparation for a year-long renovation project, which some people speculate is a union-busting strategy. Given the concerns for the future of The Chelsea, some came to throw last-minute parties, while long-term tenants held more somber gatherings. On August 1st, current guests were abruptly escorted out, increasing anxieties about the plans of the new owner, elusive real estate investor Joseph Chetrit. Even if this is the end of the era, the hotel's long and varied legacy lives on ...

Built in 1883-1885, The Chelsea was one of the first co-op apartments (Google books preview) in New York City, possibly designed to be a creative community from the original design, as architect Philip Gengembre Hubert, "inventer of the co-op," had direct and familial ties to French philosopher Charles Fourier. The Chelsea was the tallest building in New York until 1902, when the Fuller Building (later known as the Flatiron Building) claimed that title. In 1903, the co-op went bankrupt, and in 1905 or 1906, the building became a hotel. The hotel was not spared in the Great Depression, and in 1939, the Chelsea Hotel was bought by Joseph Gross, David Bard, and Julius Krauss. In 1957, David passed the management to his son, Stanley Bard, who is remembered fondly for being supportive of the numerous artists and visionaries. Stanley remained as manager until 2007, when the Bard family was ousted by Chelsea Board of Directors. The subsequent management mis-steps are numerous and varied, as accounted in the Chelsea Hotel Blog, titled Living with Legends. At least the donuts are delicious.

But what of the occupants of note? In the early 1900s, French stage and early screen actress Sarah Bernhardt supposedly slept in a coffin during her stay at the Chelsea Hotel, and O. Henry counted the hotel amongst his New York homes, where he registered under a different name on each visit, to hide from law enforcement, if you believe the stories. Other early notables include Mark Twain, American actress and singer Lillian Russell, and a few decades later, Thomas Wolfe called Room 829 home (and you can stay there -- well, you could have a few weeks ago).

After the depression, the Chelsea Hotel went from catering to the elite of New York’s literary and theatre communities, down to a long slow descent into flophouse, and the once grand suites turned into smaller rooms. American author, critic and political activist Mary McCarthy stayed the Chelsea Hotel a number of times, and Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was a noted resident in the early 1950s. While some stories say that he drank himself to death in the Chelsea Hotel, Thomas died of pneumonia, while in a coma, in a near-by hospital. He was 39 years old.

In 1961, around a year before he died at age 34, Yves Klein wrote what came to be known as The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto. Klein might have bumped into Arthur Miller, who moved that same year when Miller divorced Marilyn Monroe. Miller called the hotel "the high spot of the surreal." By 1964, the "madcap" Chelsea Hotel was "New York's most illustrious third-rate hotel," as described in the Life Magazine article A Room with Ghost, $4 and Up (Google books). But this dive was what Arthur C. Clarke called his "spiritual home" for some while. Stanley Kubrick sought out Clarke for a movie about extra-terrestrial life, and the two wrote the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey in The Chelsea, around the same time that Andy Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls. The film included specific play-back instructions for playing two reels side-by-side (YT, 10:00). The film featured a cast of notable names, including Nico (YT, 7:26), who would go on to record an album entitled Chelsea Girl, including a track about some of the inhabitants of the hotel. Edie Sedgwick (YT, 7:59) set fire to her room, 105. Her room was just above the lobby so staff could keep close watch on her. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell also stayed at the hotel, and were brief lovers in 1967; Mitchell wrote and recorded Chelsea Morning (TV appearance, on YouTube, 2:54), and Cohen wrote Chelsea Hotel #2 (live in 1988, YT, 4:14), but about Janis Joplin and not Mitchell. Robert Mapplethorpe was a resident of Room 1017 in 1969, with Patti Smith. It was there that Mapplethorpe was filmed having his nipple pierced, with Smith providing an improvised monologue (description, not video).

The seventies were a time for punk-rockers. Iggy Smith is often mentioned, but overshadowed by Sid and Nancy's trouble in Room 100, in which Nancy Spungen was found dead (but don't worry, the Daily Mail has cleared up the case). Madonna came through in the 1980s (and again in 1992 for a photo shoot).

Then the Bard family legacy ended, taking with it the support of the arts and artists of all stripes. While it's true that art has been traded for rent, the story of a Canadian artist trading two pieces for a month's rent was probably done for positive PR, to cover the ailing image of the hotel as bohemian-friendly. The mystique and history hasn't completely faded -- the hotel was used in a May 2011 Vogue Italia editorial shoot.

Now, the hotel is more notable for it's past than it's present. It's a key location to visit for the death of famous people, complete with ghost stories and hauntings. It's not clear if the tours of the hotel are still available, but you can find video tours of rooms and video re-creations of The Chelsea's history.

Bonus: 1981 BBC Arena documentary on the Chelsea Hotel, in 6 parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.
posted by filthy light thief (47 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

 
It was so sweet when you brought donuts to the junkies
Hey, you´d give us something we'd go slip into our coffee
And we'd start reading lines from poems that didn´t matter
You covered me with blankets in the Chelsea Hotel lobby
And I'd start reachin' for the scar along your belly
They'd start takin' us 'cause winning is their hobby

But Crow, when you throw yourself under
The streets are hard when you cannot lose control
They don´t know, to them the dark don´t whisper nothin'
And they're all gonna try and rip the wind from your soul Crow

-- Jim Carroll Band, "Crow"
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:56 PM on August 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Super-awesome post and big props for the research, but did you mean Iggy Pop, perchance?
posted by mykescipark at 10:00 PM on August 6, 2011


was wondering how long it would take before this got to metafilter. awesome work, filthy light thief! i hope the Chelsea survives.
posted by lapolla at 10:01 PM on August 6, 2011


When I was at FIT I used the the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel as my " office" to meet business partners and hold editorL meetings and the like for whatever project was going on. This crap also means my friends' big art todo has to moved to someplace less interesting. argh.

I did get to go to one party there. There where doves felting around and at some point everyone took their shirts off.
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 PM on August 6, 2011


Flying around. Felting sounds dirty.
posted by The Whelk at 10:11 PM on August 6, 2011


GYOFB.... because this is amazing and I want more like it.
posted by absalom at 10:31 PM on August 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


I hope it survives too. Chelsea, the neighborhood, is changing so rapidly that it would be a shame to lose this historical building. Shouldn't it be a landmark? Hopefully the new owner is just renovating like they did with the Hotel Gramercy Park.
posted by cazoo at 10:40 PM on August 6, 2011


I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet...

posted by mephron at 10:53 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


This encapsulates much of what I love about Metafilter: the existence of this astonishing post in the first place, and the fact that someone beat me to the appropriate Jim Carroll quote in the comments.
posted by scody at 10:53 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. I wish mainstream journalism was this substantive. Excellent post.
posted by troll at 11:03 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I winced when I read the Chetrits bought the Chelsea. The most neglected buildings in downtown Los Angeles are in their portfolio, including the gorgeous Trinity Auditorium, the vast Clark Hotel, and Raymond Chandler's old oil company offices, which has several open windows for the pigeons to come inside and roost. All are vacant, filthy and a collective disgrace. If great buildings have souls, and I believe they do, this horrible family of hoarders will be haunted beyond the grave.
posted by Scram at 11:14 PM on August 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


What an excellent post: thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 11:41 PM on August 6, 2011


Kudos. My sunday is shot.
posted by axiom at 12:03 AM on August 7, 2011


Yup, there goes the rest of the day. Thank you!
posted by Ahab at 12:05 AM on August 7, 2011


Wow, what an amazing post. Thanks filthy light thief. There's a lot of substance here to explore!
posted by hippybear at 2:54 AM on August 7, 2011


Best of the web.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:58 AM on August 7, 2011


Best of the best of the web.
posted by beagle at 4:20 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Totally fabulous post. Is there still a Krispy Kreme across the street from the Chelsea? That was really the only thing it was missing. I like to think that the Sid and Nancy story would have ended much differently if they had had regular access to KKs.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:26 AM on August 7, 2011


Everyone's story is different if they have regular access to KKs.
posted by hippybear at 4:40 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Great post, this will keep me busy for awhile. You didn't mention Dylan because that's the first thing you think of with the Chelsea Hotel, right?

I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you

posted by marxchivist at 4:52 AM on August 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


You didn't mention Dylan because that's the first thing you think of with the Chelsea Hotel, right?

But surely a close second is:

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were taking so brave and so free
Giving me head on the unmade bed
While the limousines wait in the street
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:07 AM on August 7, 2011


Of course, that's in the FPP.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:08 AM on August 7, 2011


My Dylan remark reads a little snarky to me now. I should have said you didn't mention because "Duh everybody knows that and you would have been stating the obvious."
posted by marxchivist at 6:18 AM on August 7, 2011


To be a bedbug in the wall of The Chelsea. What stories you would have.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:27 AM on August 7, 2011


mykescipark: did you mean Iggy Pop, perchance?

Arglebargle. Yes. Razzafrazza

marxchivist: You didn't mention Dylan because that's the first thing you think of with the Chelsea Hotel, right?

The thing about The Chelsea is the sheer number of people who who are said to have traipsed through the halls, stayed for a day, or lived for a year. Except it's surprisingly tricky to find good information about their stays, as so many articles that talk about other aspects of the hotel are littered with the famous names (The Band! Zappa! The Ramones!) And now with the year-long "closing for renovations," more names crop up, but without much in the way of details.

I wanted to make a "Chelsea Hotel playlist," including as many songs that mentioned life in the Chelsea, but that would be an ungainly thing (do I mention Anberlin's Godspeed, with it's random mention of the Chelsea Hotel?). So I stopped here. Feel free to add more names and anecdotes, as I could read about these for weeks.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:56 AM on August 7, 2011


Jeffrey Lewis -- Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:24 AM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Feel free to add more names and anecdotes, as I could read about these for weeks.

Well, here's mine, and it's not all that interesting, but, it's my only personal connection to the Chelsea:

I lived in NYC for 11 years, many of which saw me employed as a part-time chauffeur. Yup, I was a driver, but not for a limo service or anything like that. I was a private chauffeur for two separate individuals. Part time. Worked eight years or so for a Wall Street financier (although his actual offices were in midtown), and three years or so for a lady who had married into the BIG money, the old money. And I'm not gonna name the name, but, it was the big, old, American MONEY. Anyway, she was a nice enough lady (as the ultra-rich go) who did a little slumming here and there, you know, on the downtown arts scene and all. So, she rented herself a room in the Chelsea Hotel, in order to do her writing. Yes. So, I'd pick her up from her Upper West Side townhouse once or twice a week and drive her down to the Chelsea. I guess it was, you know, an inspiring place for a very rich lady to go and write.

Many was the occasion, of course, that I'd think of that Leonard Cohen line (I quoted it upthread) about the limousines waiting in the street. Still, I think she really was writing in her room there, and i wasn't driving a limousine, but, rather, a Lexus. Went into the lobby once or twice, tried to soak up the historic vibe. Thought about Dylan.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:50 AM on August 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I stayed in the Chelsea for a couple of nights eight or nine years ago. Rented a room from a friend of a friend (of a friend) - I'm still not sure that the permission was there to hand us the keys. I guess the room itself was privately owned, maybe purchased years before and then rented out to folks independent of the actual Chelsea itself. I now kind of wish I knew the details, but at the time I was just happy to get a room at a very reasonable rate - we paid maybe half of what the hotel proper charged. I suppose you weren't really paying for a hotel room, you were paying for history, the chance to sleep in the same room where Leonard Cohen got a lazy blowjob.

I wish I had a good story about the place, but I didn't really spend too much time there, as I was too busy tearing around Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan and god-knows-wherever else, high on the freedom of youth (and plenty of drugs). We hung out in the lobby a bit, talking to the characters that would come and go, but like pretty much everything else from that decade of my life, it's all really just a big, hazy blur,
posted by item at 7:50 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Chelsea Girls" by Nico. Fun fact: This is the song for which I was named.
posted by pxe2000 at 8:10 AM on August 7, 2011


Is there still a Krispy Kreme across the street from the Chelsea?

Nope, not anymore, I don't think.
posted by sweetkid at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2011


The only KK I know in manhattan is at Penn station
posted by The Whelk at 9:11 AM on August 7, 2011


my dad's stepfather was a painter who split his time between his room at the Chelsea Hotel and another suitably decrepit garret in Brussels while my grandmother lived in bourgeois comfort in Paris funded by his income from selling his lithos (he was actually a much better known printmaker than painter, but damn did he want the opposite to be true). He said he had to live in squalor to work. That place certainly qualified.

I remember my parents taking me there every few months to visit with him and my mother lecturing me on the ride into town about how I couldn't wander away from them.
posted by JPD at 9:28 AM on August 7, 2011


I wanted to make a "Chelsea Hotel playlist," including as many songs that mentioned life in the Chelsea, but that would be an ungainly thing (do I mention Anberlin's Godspeed, with it's random mention of the Chelsea Hotel?). So I stopped here. Feel free to add more names and anecdotes, as I could read about these for weeks.

I had a ball this afternoon just tracking down the songs on the wiki page you link to. One of the joys was finding this one, which doesn't mention the Chelsea, but was written there (hoping it'll work outside Australia). Thanks again.
posted by Ahab at 9:37 AM on August 7, 2011


Why I love Mefi: virtuoso posts like this. And this one is made more poignant by the fact that I had reservations to stay at the Chelsea on last Monday night, only to get the email the night before cancelling my stay. Sigh. At least I'll still have the music (but now I'll never get head on an unmade bed there).
posted by liam665 at 11:00 AM on August 7, 2011


I was 17 or 18 at the time. That time I had such a wonderful time. Oh, yes, it was wonderful, and I went back again and it was good the second time. I didn't know it was a special place. I had just met this guy and we decided we needed to go to his room and have a good time. His room in the Chelsea.
posted by Goofyy at 11:51 AM on August 7, 2011


The novel Netherland by Joseph O'Neill includes several scenes in the Chelsea Hotel (including at least one in the lobby, with dodgy characters skulking about). Recommended.
posted by mark7570 at 12:03 PM on August 7, 2011


Fantastic post, filthy. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 12:29 PM on August 7, 2011


Late July 2011, would-be guests of the historic and storied Chelsea Hotel (also known as Hotel Chelsea or simply The Chelsea) were informed on their reservations were suddenly canceled, in preparation for a year-long renovation project, which some people speculate is a union-busting strategy.

I just can't get beyond that. I hope those mofos fail BIG TIME.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:06 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's unclear is the fate of the long-term tenants - will they be kicked out on some elaborate pretext as well? Whatever their fate (and I think it unlikely that the kind of tenants the place has had and probably still has would be desirable to keep around, to this scumbucket developer), the likelihood that it will reopen with scab labour staff should be enough of a reason for a general boycott by anyone who would otherwise wish to continue booking rooms there as a sentimental connection to its righteous past. Mismanagement is one thing, but union-busting should not be tolerated. There's been enough demonizing of unions already in recent times.

Perhaps it's best to close the book on the place and try to make sure it's known henceforth as the place that used to be cool but is now just another Comfort Inn (with a pretty shell.) We can't allow this asshole to benefit (in the form of nostalgia bookings) from any residual cachet the place might (continue to) have.
posted by Philofacts at 1:21 PM on August 7, 2011


Brilliant post, as usual. Thanks filthy light thief.
posted by nickyskye at 1:50 PM on August 7, 2011


I did a job there once, about a thousand years ago, when I made my living as a plumber. XXX XXXXX, a medium-famous painter was adding on the apt next to his, so his kids nanny would have a bedroom and bath with a washer/dryer.
It was all cool until I had to do a little work in the Air shaft the bathroom. The contractor made me a Academic to stand on, which was cool. It was pretty high up, too, so there was plenty of light. Of course what i was boing was, strictly speaking illegal, the whole job was, but it was New York and etc and etc...
I got to work and it was all cool until I had to replace a fitting that crumbled. See, the pipes in NYC are either copper, brass or yellow brass. Sometimes galvanized but almost only ever out in the boroughs. Copper and red brass are fine, galvanized is to throw away, but then there's yellow brass which is good if that week at the foundry was good, is mostly just heartbreak and lawsuits. Which was what started dancing around my head when I crushed the fitting, the first one. I don't remember who paid off who, but there was no water in the pipes, luckily. I kept going further back, towards the riser, where all the water comes from for that floor, kept crushing fittings, tearing threads. I started really getting worried. Luckily there were a fair number of fittings, so I had a lot of chances and by the time I finally got one that wasn't dead I was on the other side of the airshaft. I had disconnected tw other bathrooms and was going to have get an extra two lengths of copper pipe but thankfully, I was not going to flood out the Chelsea.
I got a nice letter from the painter, who never knew what had happened.
Never set foot in the Chelsea again, but always had a soft spot for it's guts, knowing they were rotten.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:22 PM on August 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


Is there still a Krispy Kreme across the street from the Chelsea? That was really the only thing it was missing. I like to think that the Sid and Nancy story would have ended much differently if they had had regular access to KKs.

Well, there is now a doughnut shop inside the Chelsea itself (mentioned in the post as the donuts are delicious, which is a post on the Gothamist about the Doughnut Plant shop), but I don't know the hours.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:56 PM on August 7, 2011


Fantastic post.

Awhile back there was a project by some New York art students (might be remembering this wrong) that consisted of some posters highlighting why people should move from New York to Philadelphia, and one of them said "Because Sid and Nancy don't live at the Chelsea Hotel - Ethan Hawke does". While not necessarily a strong reason to move to Philadelphia, I think it sums up the state of that neighborhood and a lot of New York pretty well.
posted by deafmute at 3:22 PM on August 7, 2011


I stayed there a couple time. Really bare rooms like a tiny apartment of a recently evicted down and out artist. Always wanted to get back there, amazing traffic through the lobby.
posted by sammyo at 3:56 PM on August 7, 2011


"Because Sid and Nancy don't live at the Chelsea Hotel - Ethan Hawke does".

I get what this means, really I do, but I'd rather have Ethan Hawke as a neighbor than Sid and Nancy.
posted by sweetkid at 4:46 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd rather have Ethan Hawke as a neighbor than Sid and Nancy.
You sure about that?
posted by pxe2000 at 7:23 PM on August 7, 2011


Well now what is going to happen now is anybody's guess
If I can't spend my time with love I guess I need a rest
Time is getting late now and the sun is getting low
My body's getting tired of carryin' another's load
And sunshine's waiting for me a little further down the road


"Third Week in the Chelsea," Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), 1971
posted by zomg at 9:58 PM on August 7, 2011


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