“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,” begins the famous song “Chelsea Hotel Number 2” by Leonard Cohen, about a sexual encounter with the late Janis Joplin. In its heyday, which lasted almost a century, the hotel was famous as a home for writers, musicians and artists, many of whose names are on plaques that grace the outside of the elaborate red-brick structure on 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
Today, the hotel is in a state of flux. Signs in the lobby announce that the hotel is now closed and forbid people from taking photographs. A look from across the street into the windows reveals that construction work is under way. Even the sign hanging from one of the rooms that you saw a few years ago that bore the legend “Bring Back the Bards” (longtime managers of the hotel) is gone now. The colorful artwork that once adorned the lobby is also gone, although the restaurant El Quixote, a mainstay of the hotel since 1930, remains.
To understand the Chelsea Hotel (formally known as the Hotel Chelsea), you need to go back to the beginning. The landmarked structure was built in the mid-1880s as an early housing co-op, and was then the tallest building in the city. At that time, 23rd Street was the center of the city’s theater district. However, the co-op went bankrupt in 1905, and the Chelsea soon reopened as a hotel. Even in the early days, it attracted people in the arts as guests: Mark Twain, short-story writer O. Henry, and poet Edgar Lee Masters, best known for his “Spoon River Anthology” about the lives and deaths of the residents of a small Midwestern town.
The greatest fame of the Chelsea as an artistic mecca, however, came at mid-century. Among those who stayed or ivied there were Arthur Miller, who moved there after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe and wrote “After the Fall” at the Chelsea; Brendan Behan, the Irish poet and dramatist who not only lived but died at the Chelsea and who bragged about drinking 18 straight glasses of whiskey the day before his demise; Thomas Wolfe, who wrote “The Web and the Rock” and “Look Homeward Angel” there; Jack Kerouac, who wrote “On the Road” at the Chelsea; painter Larry Rivers, composer Larry Rivers and others.
Starting in the md-1960s, a new type of artist began showing up at the Chelsea — rock stars. In addition to Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, you had Bob Dylan (who wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for his wife Sara in one of the rooms), Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Dee Dee Ramone, who memorialized the hotel in his novel “Chelsea Horror Hotel”; and Sid Vicious, who stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there. Closely allied to the rock world was Andy Warhol, who shot his underground film “Chelsea Girls” about the lives of his female stars (most of whom didn’t live at the hotel) there.
Much of this artistic activity wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of manager Stanley Bard, who befriended the artists, sometimes accepted works of art in lieu of rent, displayed their works, and in general served as a kind of cheerleader. However, in 2007, the hotel’s board of directors, perhaps looking to take advantage of the decade’s short-lived real estate boom, fired Bard. Since then, the hotel has gone through several ownership changes.
Despite fears that the hotel will be made into condos, the current owner, Chelsea Hotels Inc. (formerly King and Grove), has reassured people that it plans to keep it as a hotel. When emailed, a spokeswoman for the group answered that they expect the hotel to reopen in 2017. In the meantime, people can follow the story on the Chelsea Hotel Blog.