Yesterday, I was in Chelsea for lunch and I found myself thinking of the Chelsea and decided to find it. When I did, and posted the photo (and the one above), I remembered this unfinished review and blog post from earlier this year. Time to remove the “un”.
“In 2001, he died of everything he had ever done.” ~James Lough
While the author wrote this of one of the personalities he met while researching the Chelsea’s colorful history, the same could be said of the Chelsea Hotel itself.
“If any place will make you believe in ghosts, it’s the Chelsea.” ~Gabriella Bass
James Lough’s This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995 is an interesting look at the history of the hotel within that era of New York City history. Reading it now was an interesting parallel to the New-York Historical Society’s AIDS exhibit this summer as there was significant overlap in time, characters and storyline.
Reading the book was somewhat bittersweet since the hotel is no more, apparently. There are apparently rumors that it will be a boutique hotel with a club as soon as early 2014 or or 2015 (if no more construction issues) but it won’t be the Chelsea. How can I be attached to the story of a building whose existence I was only tangentially aware of? Thank you books.
I actually love the author’s approach to writing this book. He read and researched, then interviewed via phone/email and then met as many of the subjects as possible. It allowed him to tell a cohesive narrative that was part a biography of the people and part the hotel’s own memoirs.
The hotel’s history is a bit of who’s who in American history:
“The 12-storey, 250-room Chelsea hotel was among the tallest buildings in New York when it was built in 1883. It became a residential hotel in 1905 and a celebrated retreat for musicians, painters and men of letters, including Mark Twain, William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams. In one room, Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in another Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Dylan Thomas drank 18 glasses of whisky in a row in his room before falling into a coma and dying in a nearby hospital. Andy Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick set fire to hers. Jimi Hendrix rehearsed there, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan both wrote songs about it and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Chelsea Morning’ gave the Clintons the name of their daughter. The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious was arrested after his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found stabbed to death in room 100.” ~David Smith
The hotel’s recent history has been turmoil since 2007 when it came under new management. This change impacted long term manager Stanley Bard who, through the author’s voice, was as interesting a character as the brand names who stayed at his hotel. There were concerns about the planned modernization, its support of the arts and artists who called the hotel home. Construction began in earnest in 2011 after tourists were no longer permitted, hit issues in 2012, and have been going on and off since then. Maybe it’s good so many of the legends didn’t live to see the death of their home?
Unseen in my photos above, is the scaffolding which still covers the hotel at street level.
The Chelsea Hotel is not your ordinary hotel—it’s a culture factory on hyper drive. Artists living at the Chelsea have probably produced more great paintings, sculptures, literature, theater, music, photography, and film than any American artistic movement. With an impressive record like this, it’s no surprise that myriad myths and half-truths about the Chelsea and its artists have ascended like a flock of blackbirds. For example, it’s not exactly true that Dylan Thomas died at the Chelsea Hotel. He merely slipped into a coma there in Room 215 where he resided. He did the actual dying at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. But after his bender at the White Horse Tavern, he did utter his alleged last words at the Chelsea: “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys, and I think that’s the record.” It’s debatable that punk rock icon Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea. True, Spungen was stabbed to death in Room 102, and in the famous photograph, that is her body in the bag the paramedics are hauling out under the hotel’s red and white awning.
Although the hotel continued as the Chelsea until 2007, it truly peaked in the 80s. With the dot-com and related real estate boom in New York City in the 1990s, gentrification even hit the Chelsea. This book examines the fifteen year period between 1980 and 1995, the latter half representing the time when Chelsea – the hotel and the neighborhood – changed for good.
I actually find it hard to think about the good, bad or otherwise of New York City’s gentrification. While I’ve lived here long enough to see some of it (think Target in East Harlem), I am too young to know most of the old, dark NYC in anything other than books.
The Hotel Chelsea has an ugly-duckling sort of stateliness. Built during the transition between Victorian and Edwardian periods, it shows the influence of both. Call it Awkwardian.….If you were to show an innocent bystander a picture of the building, they might guess it was an old insane asylum, back when straitjackets were in vogue. With its high gables, skinny chimneys, its homely-ornate brick façade, and florid wrought-iron balconies, the Hotel Chelsea is gothic, at least in the literary sense of the word.
The benefit of writing this post months after I read the book is I forgot about sections like this. When I was walking in Chelsea I thought I’d spot this easily. It turned out that I needed my Google Maps app and when I saw it, there was definitely a feeling of “that’s it?!?” That said, I love some of the architectural details, especially the balconies. There being a Doughnut Plant at ground level was amusing for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.
‘David, you don’t want to get rid of the cracks and the crevices in the building because that’s where the ghosts hide. And if you get rid of the ghosts, the Chelsea will just be any other building.’” So the building underwent some renovation, but nothing extensive.
Apparently, Dream Palace is another book on the Chelsea that I need to read. I’m having the most fun with the Legends blog for more up to date stories than those that are in the book. Are all the stories true? Probably not — but they’re sure an entertaining read. With such an amazing, and landmarked, facade, I can’t wait until it gets warmer to take some photos.