By Terry Trucco
Today we say good-bye to the fabled Hotel Chelsea, or at least the high-profile bohemian flophouse we knew. On July 31st, at the stroke of midnight, the hotel that housed Virgil Thomson, Sid Vicious and Viva closed its doors to overnight guests, and its future as a hotel is unclear.
It is believed the building has been sold to developer Joseph Chetrit, who numbers the newly stylish Empire Hotel among his properties. In recent weeks, word spread that the hotel would close for a year for deep-dish renovations, overseen by architect Gene Kaufman, known for contemporary sliver buildings with checkerboard exteriors like the Times Square triplets (Embassy Suites, Candlelight Inn and Holiday Inn Express on West 39th Street).
Given the 1885 red brick Queen Anne pile is a landmark property, chances are slim that the Chelsea will morph into a 30-story glass tower or jettison its famed lobby art collection or wrought-iron balconies. “People should not be nervous about that,” Kaufman told The New York Times.
Still, it’s not everyday a legendary hotel departs. Just what are we losing?
The Chelsea was never the Plaza, even if it was just as old and famous. One of the city’s first
co-ops, it was built to house apartments and in 1905 became a hotel where Mark Twain, O. Henry and several Titanic survivors stayed. Bankrupt by 1939, it was purchased by three partners. Just as Frank Case molded the Algonquin into a mecca for writers and Broadway actors, Joseph Gross, Julian Krauss and David Bard cultivated artists and authors lured by the hotel’s generous rooms, abundant natural light and often agreeable terms, including a barter practice that allowed artists to hand over a painting or sculpture in lieu of rent.
Name a notable 20th-century artist, musician or writer and chances are he or she checked into the Chelsea. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edith Piaf, Simone de Beauvoire, Jean-Paul Satre, Thomas Wolf, Allen Ginsberg, Stanley Kubric, Jack Keroac, Arthur C. Clarke, Jane Fonda, the Grateful Dead, Jasper Johns, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, the Dylans, Thomas and Bob – you get the idea.
Charles R. Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, committed suicide in his room. Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol’s It Girl, set fire to hers.
Not much changed when Bard’s son Stanley took over as manager in the 1970s. In Just Kids, Patti Smith writes of meeting with Bard and nervously submitting beribboned portfolios of drawings by herself and Robert Mapplethorpe in the hopes of getting a break on their $50 a week rent. The work was returned unceremoniously. “I couldn’t be sure if Bard had even looked at it,” she writes. “Certainly, if he had he didn’t see it with my eyes.”
As for Room 1017, the smallest in the hotel, Smith recalls pale blue walls, a white metal bed draped with a chenille spread and, on the small wood dresser atop a faded doily, a portable black-and-white TV, “a futuristic yet obsolete talisman, with the plug dangling for our entire stay.”
No one stayed at the Chelsea for the cutting edge interior decor, of course. “We could have had a fair-sized railroad flat in the East Village for what we were paying,” Smith writes. “But to dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education.”
The Chelsea was, in fact, one of those rare independent hotels sprinkled with magic, albeit a highly specialized strain not immediately identifiable to all. I caught a glimpse when I spent a night in 1991. The furnishings were ghastly – an outdated kitchenette, aging mouse gray carpeting, pilly sheets on the sagging bed, a drippy tap that left a rusty stripe on the ancient bathtub. But light poured through big windows and our room was spacious and oddly cheerful.
The highlight was the lobby, Bard’s sprightly gallery of contemporary art and a congenial gathering place. There was no room service so, with coffee and a donut from the deli across the street, I curled up in a big chair and took in the scene. The art, which included a painting from Larry Rivers’ Dutch Masters series, was magnificent. And a lively collection of residents passed through, from old ladies in shorts and straw hats to sleek young artists and actors. Everyone stopped to pet a big white dog gnawing a bone by a battered coffee table. The $85 I paid seemed almost a bargain if you were on a budget, craved local color and weren’t too particular. That said, I was happy to check out.
The Chelsea spiffed up its rooms somewhat in the ensuing years (new furniture and bedding; same old radiators and plumbing). Tenants fell into categories – high-rent residents, like Hans van den Broek the lead character in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, paying $5,000 a month for capacious, high-ceilinged apartments, residents grandfathered into rooms at low rents and overnighters ponying up $200 in the hopes of scoring Sid and Nancy’s room. Though transients made the Chelsea a hotel, they held the lowest status. The hotel’s 100 permanent residents will be allowed to stay, according to The New York Times.
I stopped by the Chelsea last week and hung out in the lobby for a while. Though camera-laden tourists outnumbered latter-day Patti Smiths and the oddball characters I encountered when I stayed, it stood out as one of the great New York hotel lobbies, a low-key, sui generis place to plop in a chair and drink in the atmosphere. The Chelsea has been living on its legend for years, and that’s not going anywhere. But I’ll miss that lobby. Maybe they won’t ruin it, but it’s hard to be optimistic.
Update: On August 5, Hotels magazine reported real estate developer Joseph Chetrit’s $80 million deal to acquire and renovate the Hotel Chelsea was approved. In a release the Chetrit Group stated its plans to restore the hotel “to the quality and aesthetics of other popular boutique hotels in the area while maintaining many facets of the hotel that locals and visitors cherish.”