The Infamous Chelsea Hotel - The Iconic Artist Hideaway
By Stanley Turkel
New York’s Chelsea
Hotel is world-renowned as a residence for artists, writers, actors,
and other characters who live on the cutting edge of society. The
Chelsea has always been a center of artistic, cultural and bohemian
activity. Built as one of the city’s first cooperative apartment houses
in 1884, the Chelsea became a hotel in 1905. The Chelsea’s architect was
Philip Hubert of Hubert and Pirsson. The hotel was listed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
The 12-story brick bearing-wall structure has been called Victorian Gothic, but its style is hard to define. It was the tallest building in New York until 1899 and its surrounding neighborhood was the center of New York’s Theater District.
The original Chelsea cooperative had about one hundred apartments, of which seventy were owned by shareholders and thirty were rented out. Christopher Gray, the eminent architectural historian, wrote in his New York Times Streetscapes column:
In 1885, the Real Estate Record and Guide said that many of the apartments were owned by tradesmen and suppliers on the project “who were persuaded” to take them in lieu of money - apparently under duress… The bloom of the co-op movement wilted in 1885 as several failed, and new legislation severely restricted construction of tall apartment houses…. Around 1900 the building began to shift toward transient occupancy - the writer O. Henry stayed there for a short time in 1907. In 1912, Titanic survivors with second-class tickets stayed at the Chelsea for a few days.
The Chelsea has a roster of famous guests like no other hotel in the United States. Because of its long list of famous guests and residents, the hotel has a singular history, valued both as a birthplace of creative modern art and by tragedies in the public news.
For example, Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odessey” while staying at the Chelsea, and poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Martin Matz chose it as a suitable environment for intellectual discussions. It is also known as the place where the Irish writer Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning on November 9, 1953, and where Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, was found stabbed to death on October 12, 1978. Charles R. Jackson, author of “The Lost Weekend,” committed suicide in his room on September 21, 1968.
The Chelsea has provided a home for the following:
• Literary Artists: Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Arnold Weinstein, Leonard Cohen, John Patrick Kennedy, Arthur Miller, Quentin Crisp, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac (who wrote “On the Road” there), Robert Hunter, Brendan Behan, Eugene O’Neill, Simone de Beauvoir, Robert Oppenheimer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Wolfe, Jan Cremer and Rene Picard.
• Actors and Film Directors: Stanley Kubrick, Shirley Clarke, Dave Hill, Milos Foreman, Lillie Langtry, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Eddie Izzard, Kevin O’Connor, Uma Thurman, Elliott Gould, Elaine Stritch, Jane Fonda, Edie Sedgwick and Sarah Bernhardt.
• Musicians: Much of the Chelsea’s history has been shaped by the following musicians who stayed there: The Grateful Dead, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Virgil Thomson, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Rufus Wainwright, Abdullah Ibraham, Vasant Rai, Madonna, Falco, Ryan Adams, The Fuse, Michael McDermott and The Libertines.
• Visual Artists: The Hotel has collected and displayed the work of many visual artists including Jackson Pollack, Larry Rivers, Robert M. Lambert, Brett Whiteley, Christo, Arman, Richard Bernstein, Francisco Clemente, Ching ho Chang, David Remfry, Philip Taaffe, Michele Zalopany, Ralph Gibson, Rene Shapshak, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Robert Crumb, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, William De Koonig, John Dahlberg and Henri Cartier- Bresson. Painter and ethnomusicologist Harry Everett Smith lived and died at the Chelsea in Room 328. The painter Alphaeus Philemon Cole lived there for 34 years until his death in 1988 at age 112, when he was the oldest living man. Bohemian abstract and Pop art painter Susan Olmetti creates paintings outside on the sidewalk during her frequent summer residences at the hotel.
• The Chelsea is featured in many films, songs and books including “Chelsea Horror Hotel” by Dee Dee Ramons; “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living With the Artists and Outlaws at New York’s Rebel Mecca” by Ed Hamilton; “The Chelsea Girl Murders” by Sparkle Hayter; “Chelsea on the Rocks” by Abel Ferrara; among others.
The hotel is also famous for its architecture and beautiful grand staircase, which reaches up twelve floors to the roof. The staircase is not available to tourists, only to registered guests and guided tours.
In 1946, David Bard, Joseph Gross and Julius Krauss jointly owned and managed the hotel until the early 70s. With the passing of Gross and Krauss, Stanley Bard, son of David Bard, assumed management. At that time, the Bard family owned 58% of the hotel.
The Board of Directors announced on June 18, 2007 that it had entered into a management agreement with BD Hotels NY, LLC, which is led by Richard Born and Ira Drukier, two of New York City’s most successful hoteliers. “For many, the Chelsea Hotel is one of New York City’s most cherished and legendary landmarks,” said Marlene Krauss, M.D., a Board member and the daughter of Julius Krauss. BD Hotels is expected to improve customer service and amenities; create more inviting and livelier common areas; continue to modernize the hotel’s major mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems; and better utilize the Chelsea’s historic spaces. The Board said that long-time Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard, who has been a fixture at the hotel for more than 50 years, is expected to have a continuing role at the hotel.
The switch in management is the culmination of a power struggle related to Stanley Bard’s efforts to increase his control among the shareholders who own the hotel. After the resulting shakeup, David Bard remains on the Board but he is outvoted by the other two members. Stanley Bard said that he would cooperate during the transition with the new management, but added that he and the Board had differences of opinion about how to run the hotel. Under Stanley Bard, it became famous as a haven for artists and creative performers, and he was known to subsidize artists who were down in their luck. “This took 50 years of nurturing and development,” Mr. Bard said. “Everyone respected it - the cultural community, the people living there. That’s hard to create.”
The Chelsea’s biggest celebrity fan is Ethan Hawke, who gratefully recalls that Mr. Bard gave him a room when his marriage was breaking up. Eight years ago, Mr. Hawke, who does a decent imitation of David Bard’s New York accent, filmed a fictional homage to the hotel, “Chelsea Walls”.