Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Chelsea Hotel

From time to time I have posted about New York as a mecca for writers.  Today let’s visit a star-studded spot where human creativity and a lot of other little understood and sometimes dangerous forces have resided.  Spacey people have frequented it for decades.  Just for starters, Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there.  And from a different point on the spaced-out spectrum, William Burroughs lived in this place while he was writing The Naked Lunch.

The Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd Street is a New York City Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.  Even without all the glitterati associated with it, it would be famous just for its architecture, an amalgam of Queen Ann Revival and Victorian Gothic.  It was built in 1883 as New York’s first coop apartment building, and in its life so far has demonstrated a definite preference for Gothic with a capital G.  When built, standing at twelve stories, it was the tallest building in New York.  It contained 250 units and a grand staircase that went up all twelve flights.  At that point, it was in the middle of New York’s theater district.  It provided servants to its occupants!

But then the vagaries of Manhattan real estate spoiled everything.  By 1905, developers were offering much more spacious accommodations on the Upper West Side and boom, crash, the Chelsea went bankrupt.  That’s when they turned it into a hotel.

In 1912, some of the survivors of the Titanic stayed there after they arrived at Pier 54, nearby on 14th Street.

It would take well into next week to type out the names of the famous and infamous who have lived at the Chelsea.  Here is a small sampling: Mark Twain, O. Henry, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Janis Joplin, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Popp, Virgil Thomson, Thomas Wolf, Madonna, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Brendan Behan, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Uma Thurman, Elliott Gould, Elaine Stritch, Michael Imperioli, Jane Fonda, The Grateful Dead, Chick Corea, Edith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, Alice Cooper, Alejandro Escovedo, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendricks, Canned Heat, Abdullah Ibrahim, Christo, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.  I could go on, but my fingers are starting to bleed and my imagination is reeling.

Some of the above died there, and famously Sid Vicious’s girlfriend did so violently.  There are those who say the place is haunted.  I would not be surprised.  If any building in the USA is haunted, it should be this one.

The Chelsea had its financial ups and downs over the decades.  Then, in 2011, a real estate developer bought it for $80 Million.  There have been some troubles over the subsequent treatment of the rent-controlled tenants during renovation.  Difficulties continue, but as of now, the Hotel Chelsea is set to reopen next year.   I imagine they will be charging more for a one-night stay than Dylan Thomas paid for a whole year’s rent.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. What a fun romp through that famous old place!! Yes, it is a beautiful building. And boy, if those walls could talk!

  2. Indeed, Margaret. I do not blush easily, but those walls, I am sure, could turn me beet red. Which of the denizens would you most like to have met?

    1. I'd like to have spent a little time with either Edith Piaf or Janis Joplin. They both send chills down my back when I hear them sing. Probably have a sip of wine with Edith while I try to communicate with her about jazz in my limited French, and then I'd like to share a smooth shot of Southern Comfort with Janis as I marvel at how that woman can crank out those earthly songs.

    2. MM, Moi aussi! They are two of my favorites, whose music I have listened to all my life long. But then in fact, Mark Twain may be my all-time favorite American.

    3. Oh, and to quote Janis: "God is good, but Southern Comfort's better." I am sure if she said that today, it would not be taken as tongue in cheek, but literally and she would be condemned by that certain political party.

    4. Makes me smile to think (if it were possible) to have a drink with both ladies and Mark Twain at the same time. I'm sure he'd have a good time, too!

  3. I'll go both you gals one better:..... I'll invite the Titanic survivors into the bar and treat them all to the most expensive champagne!!! Then make a movie of their new lives at the Chelsea!!! Then ask the Mayor to lend us his limo for a New York Tour!!!! And beg Bergdorf for new clothes for both the men and ladies! TJStraw