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The 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.
This was no ordinary architectural firm. Philip Gengembre Hubert, a French-American, used his mother's maiden name upon emigrating to the United States. He was a broad-based, creative man who financed his architectural studies with the income from his many patents one of which was for the first self-fastening button which he sold to the U.S. Army. In 1879, Hubert formed a partnership with James L. Pirsson and together they created the cooperative experiment, known as the Hubert Home Clubs. Their first project was the Rembrandt, a Home Club residence for artists on West 57th Street adjacent to the yet-to-be-built Carnegie Hall.
In "New York, New York: How the Apartment House Transformed the Life of the City (1869-1930)" Elizabeth Hawes writes,
To the members of a Home Club, Hubert, Pirsson and Company proposed sharing far more than the controversial common roof. Under the terms of a cooperative home association, as it was formally known, tenants- "a number of gentlemen of congenial tastes, and occupying the same social positions in life" formed a club, or joint stock company, to share the cost of land and a building, with each associate receiving a proprietary lease on a suite appropriate to his investment, and with an excess of suites to be rented to pay the mortgage and running expenses....
In concept, Hubert Home Clubs were designed for the wealthy. Hubert had learned from experience that people of limited means could not enter into an arrangement that called for assets and economic risks. His first building, plain but substantial structure in a neighborhood of clerks, had been planned for the moderate middle classes, but it filled with well-to-do entrepreneurs.
Hubert Home Cooperative Clubs, therefore, were regarded as suitable replacements for private houses. Hubert was an enthusiastic supporter of the economist Henry George who challenged the accepted economic theory with his best-selling book Progress and Poverty in 1879. Hubert's designs for cooperative apartment buildings included many new ideas:
Hubert's Chelsea Hotel is a 12-story bearing-wall structure which has been called Victorian Gothic but its style is hard to define. It was the tallest building in New York until 1899. The most prominent exterior features are the delicate floral filigree iron balconies from the foundry of the Cornell Brothers on Centre Street. The Chelsea was elaborately designed with gables, dormers and wide red brick chimneys. Inside, the chosen materials were polished hardwood floors and doors, marble and onyx. The original Chelsea had a barbershop, restaurant, maid service, artists studios, a large roof garden and one hundred apartments, seventy owned by cooperators and thirty rented out. Evening concerts were hold in the summer in the fireproof roof garden.
The apartments were large (from three to twelve rooms) and decorated according to the desires of the individual tenants. Servants quarters were available but few apartments had full kitchens. Christopher Gray, the eminent architectural historian, wrote in his New York Times Streetscapes column (February 15, 1998):
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 personal tragedies in the public news.
For example, Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" 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 Hotel has provided a temporary home for the following:
Literary Artists: Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Arnold Weinstein, Leonard Cohen, John Patrick Kennedy, 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. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe lived at the Chelsea as a married couple. "The Chelsea, whatever else it was, was a house of infinite toleration." Arthur Miller once wrote.
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, John Sloan, Arman, Richard Bernstein, Francisco Clemente, Ching ho Cheng, 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.
Fashion Designers: Charles James, one of the best-known couturiers of the 1940s and 1950s, lived at the Chelsea from 1964 until he died of pneumonia in 1978; New York fashion designer Zaldy who was Michael Jackson's chief costume designer for the London "This Is It" show and who designed the shroud for Jackson's coffin.
Andy Warhol Superstars: Warhol directed "Chelsea Girls" in 1966, a film about his factory regulars and their experiences at the Chelsea. Some of the Warhol scene regulars included Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet, Mary Woronov, Holly Woodlawn, Andrea Feldman, Nico, Paul America and Brigid Berlin. Valerie Solanas shot Warhol at the Factory at 33 Union Square, just a few blocks from the Chelsea.
On November 21, 1983, Maureen Dowd wrote in the in the New York Times,
"...The Victorian-Gothic hotel, which is registered as a national historic landmark, has a long history as a refuge for the creative. Mark Twain once held court in the opulent dining room. O'Henry checked in often, using a different name each time. In Room 829, Thomas Wolfe produced "The Web and the Rock" and "You Can't Go Home Again," often pacing the hallways for inspiration.....William Burroughs wrote "Naked Lunch" there. The poet Edgar Lee Masters lived at the Chelsea for more than 20 years....
At the center of the hotel's Bohemian mood is Stanley Bard, the manager, who inherited his job and his passion for the Chelsea from his father, David who ran the hotel for many years. "There is not another building in the world that caters to this many creative people," Stanley Bard said. "There's some mystique within these walls that helps people produce art.
Mr. Bard takes a tolerant approach, fostering the feeling of an artist's colony. He often lets his tenants, many of whom are down and out or up and coming, put off paying rent for months and even years. "I don't ever want the Chelsea to turn into a normal place just in business to make money", he said. "I want to keep the atmosphere kooky but nice, eccentric but beautiful."
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 the management. At that time, the Bard family owned 58% of the hotel. The Chelsea was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. 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 remained 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."
On March 8, 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the proposed designation as a Landmark of the Hotel Chelsea and the proposed designation of the related Landmark Site. The hearing had been duly advertised in accordance with the provisions of law. Eight witnesses spoke in favor of designation including one of the owners of the hotel. There were no speakers in opposition to designation.
On the basis of a careful consideration of the history, the architecture and other features of this building, the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the Hotel Chelsea has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.
The Commission further found that, among its important qualities, the Chelsea Hotel was one of the pioneer Victorian Gothic apartment houses, that its unique array of balconies is an extremely attractive feature, and that it has always been noted as the home of famous writers and artists such as Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas.
Accordingly, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated as a Landmark the Hotel Chelsea, 222 West 23rd Street, Borough of Manhattan.
Ed Scheetz, CEO of King & Grove Hotels, the new owner of the Chelsea Hotel, stated that a recent "settlement reflects the goal of King & Grove Hotels to implement significant improvements in the way the property is managed during restoration.... When we became involved, our priority was to enter a dialogue with the residents, to enhance it and to make immediate and continuing improvements in living conditions during the hotel's restoration."
Writer's note: This is an excerpt from my book "Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York", AuthorHouse, 2011.