Monday, May 24, 2010

The 1883 Chelsea Hotel

photograph NYPL Collection
 Had the building George M. Smith erected in 1882 never had a famous resident, it would still be an architecturally important building today.    But Smith's building had more than just a few famous residents and the quality of the Chelsea Hotel's architecture is nearly lost in the glare of its legendary guest list.

Smith commissioned architects Hubert & Pirsson to design a cooperative apartment house on 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues in 1882.  The team was on the cutting edge of apartment house design, coming up with the "mezzanine plan" or split level floor plan, for instance.  They actively encouraged cooperative ownership apartments and were far ahead of other architects in terms of ventilation and amount of sunlight in the units.

Their Eastlake-style, Queen Anne building incorporated the latest in architectural trends and conveniences.  Tier after tier of cast iron fronted balconies with french doors lined the 23rd Street facade, ornamented with a heavy cast sunflower motif.  Windows had geometrically patterned stained glass overlights and an intricate central cast iron staircase wound from the lobby to the twelfth floor.  It was the tallest building in Manhattan.

Built to the buyer's specifications, the apartments contained from one to seven rooms, boasted fireplaces (one cast in bronze), high ceilings and sound-proof walls.  When it opened in 1883 at a cost of $300,000, it sat in the center of the vibrant theatre district.  Across the street was Proctor's Theater where vaudeville played, at the corner of 8th Avenue was The Grand Opera House offering opera and melodramas, while other theatres dotted the thoroughfare all the way to 5th Avenue.

The two top floors were reserved for rental units and the ground floor had commercial space available to bring in extra income for the cooperative.  The plan was that the running expenses would be paid for by the leases, costing the apartment owners nothing.

Problems for the Chelsea began in 1893 when it took a double-hit.  Almost unnoticed at first was the opening of The Empire Theatre on 40th Street, the first real Broadway theatre.  The Empire started the relocation of the theatre district and a major change in the Chelsea's neighborhood.  Later that year came the financial panic that triggered a series of bank failures and sparked a depression lasting until 1897.

The Chelsea survived, but a second financial panic in 1903 was too much and bankrupted the cooperative.  By 1905 it had been purchased and reorganized as The Chelsea Hotel, beginning a new chapter in American popular culture.

The Chelsea opened as a residential hotel and immediately attracted the famous and artistic.  Mark Twain moved in.  Actresses Lily Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt were early residents.  And as the decades passed, the list grew.  Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Wolfe, Dennis Hopper, Ethan Hawke, Jane Fonda and Edith Piaf lived here.

By by 1960s and 70s it was where both the celebrated and the infamous lived.  Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001 - A Space Odyssey here.  Arthur Miller lived at the Chelsea six years and wrote of it, "This hotel does not belong to America. There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and's the high spot of the surreal. Cautiously, I lifted my feet to move across bloodstained winos passing out on the sidewalks--and I was happy. I witnessed how a new time, the sixties, stumbled into the Chelsea with young, bloodshot eyes."

There was tragedy at the Chelsea, too.  Dylan Thomas lived in Room 205 and there, after 18 whiskies, fell into a coma from which he never recovered.  In 1978 Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon were living in Room 100.  On October 11 she was found stabbed to death in the bathroom.  Vicious, while under supicion of murder, died of a heroin overdose shortly thereafter. 

Over the years the management would sometimes accept artwork in lieu of back rent from struggling artists, resulting in the somewhat dowdy lobby and the staircase being crammed with paintings.  Visual artists who called the Chelsea home included Willem De Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diego Rivera, Christo, Jackson Pollack and Larry Rivers.  Award winning painter,etcher and engraver Alphaeus Philemon Cole lived at the Chelsea for 35 years until his death. When he died at 112, he was the world's oldest man.

Musicians Madonna, Patti Smith, Allice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin stayed here as well as actors and directors like Kevin O'Connor, Uma Thurman, Edie Sedgwick and Gaby Hoffman.

The hotel inspired two of Leonard Cohen's songs, "Chelsea Hotel" and "Chelsea Hotel No 2."  He carried on his affair with Janis Joplin here and later said of it "It's one of those hotels that have everything that I love so well about hotels. I love hotels to which, at four a.m., you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room and no one cares about it at all."

And the list of famous residents goes on and on and on.

The Chelsea Hotel is still a residential hotel; although a quarter of the 400 rooms were set aside for temporary quests until August 1, 2011 when the management announced it would initiate a one-year renovation.

While the residents still use the grand cast iron staircase inside it is unavailable to sightseers.  Outside, the facade around the entrance is plastered with bronze plaques proclaiming just a few of the scores of celebrities and artists who have lived here.


  1. Love the Black & White photo of the building.

  2. great blog on the chelsea you have