You couldn’t miss the Hotel Chelsea, even if it weren’t for the massive sign above the entrance that says HOTEL CHELSEA. Architecturally it is unmistakable, a red-brick hulk that dominates West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, looming large against the bright sky.
It is also possibly the most famous hotel in New York. For most of the 20th century, the Chelsea was a byword for bohemian glamour: a resting place for artists, musicians, writers, actors and poets: Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Wolfe, Dvorak, Sam Shepard, Dennis Hopper, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jimi Hendrix, Ethan Hawke, Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone. Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac had a one-night stand here, each signing their real names in the visitors’ book and assuring the clerk the register would be famous someday. Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall here, Bob Dylan wrote Blonde on Blonde, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Edie Sedgwick set it on fire, Jackson Pollock threw up on the carpet.
It saw tragedy, too: It was here that Dylan Thomas allegedly spoke his famous last words, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies – I think that’s the record”, before he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke. Here, too, that 20-year-old Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in October 1978. Her partner Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose four months later, on bail for her murder.
Despite this history, the Chelsea had latterly needed a bit of love. Its edgy glamour felt out of step in the 21st-century Manhattan of yoga classes and green juices, where hotel visitors care more about broadband speed and gym access than whether Jimi Hendrix might have stayed here. Its future looked uncertain until it was taken over by a property group, which has refurbished and reopened it as a hotel that respects its heritage while being up to speed for a new generation, be they creatives or those lured by the hotel’s reputation.
On my way to check in, I noticed an unusually cool-looking guy on the door. He had long hair, orange tinted glasses and the laconic air of someone who knows his way around the block. Later I discovered this was William Benton, by night a musician, by day an employee keeping the spirit of the Chelsea alive. He first visited in 1996, when he moved to New York.
“I’m the only guy old enough to have stayed here before,” he laughed. “I grew up in rural Oklahoma. Fresh off the farm, it was an early order of business to visit the Chelsea because it was associated with so much literature and music in my sphere of interest.” Today he gives tours to guests, telling tales of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. “It still excites and inspires me. There’s a habit – not just in New York – of getting rid of these buildings, and the culture suffers when that happens. I was relieved when the new ownership took control, because I had assumed it would be gone.”
The hotel was built between 1883 and 1885, a 250-room, 12-storey Victorian Gothic pile. It was one of the city’s first grand apartment blocks, but became a residential hotel after the turn of the century. While it was a haven for generations of artistic visitors, it fell into disrepair – a familiar cycle – until 1947, when it was taken over by arts-loving David Bard. It was thanks to him, and his son Stanley, who took over after his father’s death in 1964 and ran it for the next 40 years until he was forced out in a power tussle, that the hotel retained its reputation for creatives. While he could be nurturing, however, Stanley was also eccentric.
As Joseph O’Neill, Booker-shortlisted novelist who lived at the Chelsea for 10 years from 1998, says: “When I moved to the USA I had no credit history and couldn’t rent an apartment, so I went to the Chelsea. He wasn’t the kind of guy to worry about that. If you interested him, for whatever reason, he would accommodate you. But the community was what made it such an amazing place to live.
“It was a very neoliberal moment when I moved in, during the dotcom boom,” he adds. “The hotel felt like one of the last fragments of a slightly scruffier, wilder New York.”
Stanley Bard died in 2017, at 82, described in his New York Times obituary as a “Robin Hood of innkeepers.” By then the hotel had been under new ownership for several years and the renovations, which have taken more than a decade, were underway, room by room.
The Chelsea is still set up more like an apartment block than a hotel, with an analogue appeal, all tiled floors, brass and wrought iron. The lobby is decorated with abstract artworks. Behind the check-in desk, keys on tasselled keyrings wait in a grid. The grand staircase behind reception has been opened up, leading the way to the rooms, while lifts have their old buttons. Bedrooms feel solid and built to last – mine was large enough that I felt I could live in it without too much trouble – but updated for the expectations of the modern traveller, from speakers to an enticing expanse of bed.
Downstairs, El Quijote, the hotel’s long-standing Spanish restaurant, has been given a spruce up and joined by another restaurant, Cafe Chelsea. The bar is quickly becoming a destination in its own right, a suite of rooms where a sceney crowd meets for cocktails. By the end of the year there will be a spa and gym; reasons to visit beyond the history. The Chelsea is conveniently located, a short walk from Penn Station, for easy access to the airport, and almost equidistant between Central Park and downtown.
Any restoration like this raises the question of whether charm has been retained: what Arthur Miller described as “scary and optimistic chaos” combined with “the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family”. Most of the hotel’s long-term residents, which O’Neill says were its soul, have gone, although a few remain. No longer ruled by the eccentric Bards, the Chelsea receives guests on a more conventional basis, with prices starting at around $300 (£235) per night.
Yet for Benton, at least, the Chelsea spirit lives on.
“That’s always the question,” he says. “But the history of New York is continual change. When I came in the Nineties everyone told me I’d missed the party, but now I am told I was there for exciting times. I’m no fan of ghosts and woo-woo, but it’s a meaningful thing to me to have a tangible link to this music and art and literature that matters to me. This building is that.”
After three nights of soaking up its atmosphere – and a few martinis in the bar – it was not hard to agree.
Ed was a guest of Hotel Chelsea (00 1 212 483 1010; hotelchelsea.com) which offers doubles from $300 (£235)
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