At NYC's Chelsea Hotel, The End Of An Artistic Era?

  • For more than half a century, New York City's historic Chelsea Hotel was a haven for writers, musicians and artists. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Mark Rothko, Arthur C. Clarke and Bob Dylan are just a few of the scores of creative thinkers who spent time in the 12-story, West 23rd Street landmark.
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    For more than half a century, New York City's historic Chelsea Hotel was a haven for writers, musicians and artists. Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Mark Rothko, Arthur C. Clarke and Bob Dylan are just a few of the scores of creative thinkers who spent time in the 12-story, West 23rd Street landmark.
    Bobbi Bowers/Flickr
  • The front entrance honors some of the hotel's many well-known residents, including Dylan Thomas, James Schuyler, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe and Leonard Cohen. "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel," Cohen wrote in his 1974 song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."
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    The front entrance honors some of the hotel's many well-known residents, including Dylan Thomas, James Schuyler, Brendan Behan, Thomas Wolfe and Leonard Cohen. "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel," Cohen wrote in his 1974 song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • The building was sold in May for more than $80 million to real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. Now, only long-term residents remain.
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    The building was sold in May for more than $80 million to real estate developer Joseph Chetrit. Now, only long-term residents remain.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • Front desk manager Jerry Weinstein is shown on duty in June 2007. Since then, most of the Chelsea staff have been let go. "It was like we didn't have family anymore," says long-term resident Nicola L.
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    Front desk manager Jerry Weinstein is shown on duty in June 2007. Since then, most of the Chelsea staff have been let go. "It was like we didn't have family anymore," says long-term resident Nicola L.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Chelsea's lobby, shown above in 2007, was once filled with the work of its residents.
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    The Chelsea's lobby, shown above in 2007, was once filled with the work of its residents.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • Former manager Stanley Bard, shown in his office in 2007, fostered the Chelsea's artistic community for more than 50 years. "He was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm," says photographer turned bellman Timur Cimkentli. Bard was forced out by the hotel's board of directors in 2007.
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    Former manager Stanley Bard, shown in his office in 2007, fostered the Chelsea's artistic community for more than 50 years. "He was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm," says photographer turned bellman Timur Cimkentli. Bard was forced out by the hotel's board of directors in 2007.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • Madonna lived in this room at the Chelsea after coming to New York in the early 1980s.
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    Madonna lived in this room at the Chelsea after coming to New York in the early 1980s.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • The view from Madonna's former room at the Chelsea Hotel.
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    The view from Madonna's former room at the Chelsea Hotel.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • Ed Hamilton has lived at the Chelsea for 16 years. "I came here to be a writer, 'cause it seemed like the place to go," he says.
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    Ed Hamilton has lived at the Chelsea for 16 years. "I came here to be a writer, 'cause it seemed like the place to go," he says.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • A decorated stairway is just one of many art-adorned spaces at the hotel.
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    A decorated stairway is just one of many art-adorned spaces at the hotel.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • Former manager Stanley Bard, standing in room 614, points out a photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller, taken in that same room. Miller lived in 614 for several years during the 1960s.
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    Former manager Stanley Bard, standing in room 614, points out a photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller, taken in that same room. Miller lived in 614 for several years during the 1960s.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • The living room of 614.
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    The living room of 614.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • Renovations to the hotel will be subtle, says architect Gene Kaufman. Everyone working on the project realizes that the Chelsea is a rare and special thing, he says.
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    Renovations to the hotel will be subtle, says architect Gene Kaufman. Everyone working on the project realizes that the Chelsea is a rare and special thing, he says.
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
  • Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book about the hotel. The Chelsea, she says, "has a spirit of its own. ... I don't think you can defeat this building."
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    Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book about the hotel. The Chelsea, she says, "has a spirit of its own. ... I don't think you can defeat this building."
    Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

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The fabled Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan was home to Mark Twain, Virgil Thomson and Brendan Behan. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, there. Jack Kerouac worked on On the Road. Bob Dylan wrote "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Artists Larry Rivers and Mark Rothko, and scores of painters and photographers also spent creative time there. But now the future of the hotel is up in the air.

Multimedia and performance artist Nicola L. has been at the Chelsea some 30 years. She came, she returned to France, she rented another New York apartment, and then she returned. "You come back to Chelsea like you go to your mother when something is wrong," she says.

But the building has been sold. Once filled with art by residents, the walls and stairwells are mostly bare now. Only the long-term residents remain. The staff — some of whom had been there for decades — have been let go. When the staff left, says Nicola L., "the bellman, the people at the desk — it was like we didn't have family anymore and we were in an empty boat. "

The Chelsea Hotel is unlike any other in New York. It's split between rental apartments, and tiny hotel rooms where people could stay for a night. Ed Hamilton, author of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, has lived there for 16 years. The first apartment he had cost him $500 a month.

A view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. "It seemed like the place to go," he says. i i

hide captionA view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. "It seemed like the place to go," he says.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
A view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. "It seemed like the place to go," he says.

A view from the room of 16-year resident and writer Ed Hamilton, who moved to the Chelsea in his mid-30s. "It seemed like the place to go," he says.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

"It must have been 100 square feet," he says. Now he lives with his wife in a room that's twice that size but seems minuscule: no kitchen, the bathroom is down the hall, clothes are hanging on the walls.

"I came here to be a writer because it seemed like the place to go," he says. "I was in my mid-30s. We had always heard about this place because Thomas Wolfe had lived here, and the beat writers."

The hotel is filled with ghosts. Not only those of Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death at the Chelsea, or Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sid Vicious, who was stabbed to death in their room, but all kinds of ghosts. Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book on the Chelsea. She once brought a friend to the hotel who claimed she could see ghosts.

The friend was up all night, talking to the ghosts, Tippins reports. "She told me, 'They're everywhere — in the elevators and in the lobby, and they want attention so much.' " Larry Rivers, the "leading ghost," told the friend: "It is not about the art, it is about the life. That is the important thing here."

The view from Madonna's former room at the  Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early  1980s. i i

hide captionThe view from Madonna's former room at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early 1980s.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
The view from Madonna's former room at the  Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early  1980s.

The view from Madonna's former room at the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived after coming to New York in the early 1980s.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

And that's what most residents will tell you. Scott Griffin, a theater producer, is head of the residents association. He has lived at the Chelsea for nearly 20 years. He says Arthur Miller and Robert Altman nurtured him at the Chelsea and made his career possible. "The core value of the Chelsea is not in steel or in bricks, but is in the life force that it has," he adds.

Originally built in the 1880s by Philip Hubert, it was a socialist utopian innovation with communal dining rooms, artists' studios, even a hospital clinic; Tippins says it was the first cooperative to have a mix on every floor: "Large rooms that people with more money can afford, and people who are more successful mixed in with smaller rooms of aspirers and regular working people. That was a deliberate design," she explains, "and I think it is the reason the Chelsea has managed to remain the way it is."

The Chelsea was also unique because of its management. Everybody talks about Stanley Bard, the building's former manager. Timur Cimkentli was a photographer who lived at the Chelsea, but in 1987, when he couldn't pay his rent, he became the building's bellman. Cimkentli says Bard told him: "Maybe you're not a very good photographer, but I have a job for you."

Former Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard's leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel's board of directors in 2007. i i

hide captionFormer Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard's leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel's board of directors in 2007.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Former Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard's leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel's board of directors in 2007.

Former Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard shows off a picture of actress Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller taken in room 614 — where Miller lived during the 1960s. The artist community flourished under Bard's leadership for 50 years, before he was ousted by the hotel's board of directors in 2007.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Cimkentli says it was a sanctuary for the artists, for kids who really couldn't pay their rent on time. "Any other hotel would have kicked them out," he says. "Bard allowed that to flourish; he was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm, and that was the rarity of this hotel, that he would keep you on, he would see you, and you would owe him two months' rent and you would cry to him and he would say, 'Don't worry, keep painting, keep painting.' "

Bard was ousted four years ago after conflicts with the minority shareholders. Managers came and went. Then, in May, real estate developer Joseph Chetrit bought the building for some $80 million. Architect Gene Kaufman is in charge of the renovations, which he says will be subtle. Tenants are scared it will become a condominium, but Kaufman and others say it will remain a hotel. The first priority is to preserve, he says; the second, to make it safe and functional — issues like fire safety are huge; and then there is an obligation to the current residents.

Kaufman calls the Chelsea a rare and special thing, and says everyone working on the project realizes that. "We don't have a lot of answers yet," he says. "We are still thinking. So I do think it is going to take some time, and we don't even have a schedule yet."

Chetrit, the Chelsea's new owner, was called by the New York Observer "the most mysterious big shot in New York real estate." He almost never talks to the media, and calls to his office were not returned. Many people say they wonder whether Chetrit will fall in love with the Chelsea or run out of there screaming. Those are the exact words several people used, including Sherill Tippins. "People have run screaming from it, over and over, in the past five years or so," she says, adding, "I, too, have been tussling with the building for years now; it takes you over and you struggle with it; it has a spirit of its own."

But that makes her optimistic about the future of the Chelsea. "I don't think you can defeat this building," she says. After all, as Kaufman put it, "if this was just a nice building of the period, with no serious history, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

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