The scaffolding of a stalled renovation project has hidden the façade of the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan for years now. But no amount of dust could obscure the hotel's lustrous history – because "the Chelsea," as it's often called, has been a home to a veritable encyclopedia of cultural icons..
Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Mitch Hedberg, Charles R. Jackson, and Dennis Hopper, among many others, all stayed there at one time or another. Some for a short time, others for years. Robert Mapplethorpe, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dee Dee Ramone – the list of stars goes on and on.
Of the Chelsea, Patti Smith wrote in her memoir "Just Kids," "I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively."
But what is it about this hotel – of all the hotels in New York City – that gives it so much gravitational pull for artists of all kinds?
Turns out, it was designed for exactly this purpose.
"It was initially built by Philip Hubert as an affordable artist's co-operative (though it was quickly taken over by upper and middle-class New Yorkers) and only later reopened as a hotel," emails Nicolaia Rips, an author who wrote about her experiences of growing up in the hotel in the 2000s. "If you believe that you imbue the things you create with purpose, which I do, then it is very simple: art is in the hotel's foundation, it is as essential to the hotel as the brick and mortar."
It was Hubert, a founder of the architectural firm of Hubert, Pirsson & Company, who brought the Chelsea to life in the mid-1880s. He was an avid follower of Charles Fourier, a French philosopher who imagined various forms of utopian socialism. More specifically, Fourier was a steadfast proponent of so-called "intentional communities," in which teamwork and shared social values are top priorities.
In designing and building the Hotel Chelsea, Hubert wanted just that – a place where people from varied backgrounds and lifestyles would feel safe in sharing their lives in the spirit of collaboration.
"To my knowledge, it's the largest and longest-lived artists' community in the history of the world," says Sherill Tippins, author of, "Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel."
This vision was a grand success, as evidenced by the incredible number and variety of people who've called the Chelsea home at one time or another. And although the hotel is famous for its celebrities, regular types live there, too.
"The mix of types of residents provides fodder for art – the doddering old ladies with their shocking stories from their pasts, the lonely heiresses who come to take their lives there, the high-fashion models struggling to manage their professional lives, the deli workers and taxi drivers and drug dealers – all mingling, conversing, and sharing their lives in the lobbies and elevators, in the roof gardens and at El Quijote next door," says Tippins. "Together, they comprise a human tapestry mirrored in paintings, songs, dances, compositions, sculpture, photographs, and stories and novels that have been created there."
You may wonder how artists of varying success – who are not always known for timely paychecks – managed to score rooms at a famous hotel in downtown New York City.
Tippins explains that historically, for many, the hotel was purposely made affordable because the Bard family, who managed the hotel from the 1930s through early 2000s, recognized the value of having well-known visitors or residents in the hotel. The Bards were willing to discount rent (or even forego rent or accept artworks in lieu of cash) to help artists make their way.
"During these years, the hotel grew increasingly run-down, which was fine with most residents since that meant the rent could not be raised too drastically, either – the fortunate trade-off that anyone who's lived in rent-stabilized housing in NYC understands," says Tippins.
She also points out that it's remarkable how, over its 130-plus history, the Chelsea became a reflection of the state of the larger world. For example, when the Great Depression struck, the hotel was threadbare and lost much of its sheen. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, emergent drug culture and a plethora of social stressors and financial problems took a toll. More recently, she says, greed-fueled real estate transactions filled the pockets of investors while causing untold heartache for residents.
The Chelsea Stands on Art, Legends and Lore
But no matter the hardships, the Chelsea will always be a source of legends and lore.
"It's a place of contradictions, where everyone is having a Quixotic adventure and windmills are in fact giants," says Nicolaia Rips. "It's a place of individual instability yet community. It's ephemeral and lofty yet debased. I would say it's the best place I've ever been, and its residents are the best people I've ever met."
It's where Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin carried on affair that wove its way into two of Cohen's songs ("Chelsea Hotel No. 2" is, in fact, an ode to Joplin). And it's the place that Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, was charged with stabbing his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their room in 1978 (he died from a drug overdose while on bail in 1979).
Brighter moments shined here, too. It's where Arthur C. Clarke wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey." Allen Ginsburg, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Chick Corea, Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright all bartered and traded ideas on life and art within these walls. Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" was written about the place.
Ray Mock, who co-wrote the book, "Hotel Chelsea: Living in the Last Bohemian Haven," says in an email interview that the hotel will always be known for its outrageous celebrities.
"But to me one of the most important discoveries in working on our book was that it was the great number of not-so-famous artists, artisans, intellectuals and dreamers who really kept the spirit of the place alive, toiling away at their life's work for years or decades within the building's thick walls and forming a tightly knit community," he says. "Some of them are still there and continue, each in their own way, to preserve the Chelsea's legacy."
It's no wonder, then, why it's so beloved, by so many, and why people from around the world come to simply stand on the sidewalks outside and behold its modest magnificence.
"No matter how run-down it gets, no matter how chaotic its management, no matter who many times the rent is hiked up, artists can't get enough of life lived in community there," says Tippins. "Even now, with the building shut down and half-hidden by scaffolding, and only 50 or so apartments occupied, tourists arrive every day to marvel at the bronze plaques posted alongside its entrance commemorating the lives of artists who lived there, and to dream that someday they might live creatively at the Chelsea, too."
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