Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Chelsea Hotel - 222 West 23rd Street

photograph by Velvet

In 1869 construction began on the seven-story Excelsior Buildings stretching from No. 216 through 226 on the south side of 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  Completed in 1871, it was part of a corrupt Tammany Hall scheme that would be called the Armory Frauds.  Although the city had twelve National Guard regiments, the Excelsior Buildings was one of 24 armories rented by the city.

On February 18, 1878 The New York Times reported that the structure was "totally destroyed" by fire.  The site sat vacant for four years until, on November 11, 1882 The Record & Guide announced "It appears that a new extensive apartment house is finally to be erected on the south side of Twenty-third a co-operative association to be known as the Chelsea apartment house.  The location is that formerly occupied by the old armory that was destroyed by fire...The apartments in this building will be divided into suites of from three to nine rooms."

The architectural firm of Hubert, Pirsson & Co. filed plans in January 1883 for a brick "flat for forty private families" with construction costs of $300,000--about $7.9 million today.  It would be a cooperative, or "Home Club," building.  

The Record & Guide explained how Home Clubs worked.  "A number of gentlemen of congenial tastes, and occupying the same social positions in life, meet together and agree upon a suitable site for, and the erection of, an apartment house."  They next formed a "stock company" with a president and officers.  Each stockholder received a 50-year lease with renewals, and "a fixed rental is established for each apartment to meet the current running expenses, such as coal, gas, janitor, bell-boys, taxes and interest on mortgage."  The journal pointed out that Philip Hubert of Hubert, Pirsson & Co. "was the original projector of this entire system."

The team was, as well, on the cutting edge of apartment house design, having come up with the "mezzanine plan" or split level floor plan, for instance, and were far ahead of other architects in terms of ventilation and amount of sunlight in the units.

Their Queen Anne style Chelsea Hotel incorporated the latest in architectural trends and conveniences.  Tier after tier of cast iron balconies with French doors adorned the red brick 23rd Street facade.  They were ornamented with heavy cast sunflowers--a common Queen Anne motif.  Windows had geometrically patterned stained glass transoms.  The mansard roof was punctured by dormers and chimneys and interrupted by soaring end gables and a central tower.  It was, according to at least one report, the tallest building in Manhattan.

The center gable originally wore a high, pyramidal cap.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library 

The Queen Anne style was carried on in the interiors.  An intricate central cast iron staircase wound from the lobby to the twelfth floor, its railing continuing the sunflower motif.  Because the building was a cooperative, the apartments were built to the buyers' specifications and boasted fireplaces (one cast in bronze), high ceilings and sound-proof walls.

Cast iron sunflowers blossom along the balconies.
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.

The sunflowers continue up the inner cast iron staircase. photograph provided by Carlton 

From the beginning residents of the Chelsea Hotel included artists.  Included in the 1886 Exhibition of the American Art Galleries were works by Chelsea Hotel residents J. Francis Murphy, F. K. M. Rehn, C. D. Weldon, Rufus Zogbaum, and Charles Melville Dewey.

John Francis Murphy was a largely self-taught landscape painter.  He and his wife, Ada Clifford Murphy (an accomplished painter herself) had a summer home in Arkville, New York in the Catskills.  

Charles Melville Dewey, whose works hang today in museums like the Corcoran Gallery, the National Gallery and the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia, was a tonalist painter.   Like Murphy's, Dewey's wife, Julia F. Henshaw Dewey, was also a noted painter.

One resident not involved in the arts was Charles Adolphe Pineton, Marquis de Chambrun and d'Amfreville.   Born on August 10, 1831 the Marquis had been sent to the United States during the Civil War as a special envoy.  The Sun later said "He became intimate with President Lincoln, and was present at his invitation at the surrender of Richmond."

On August 26, 1891 attorney George Norris called on the Marquis at his office on Nassau Street.  He found him seriously ill and called two policemen to help remove him.  They arrested him for being drunk, but Norris was able to explain the situation to a sergeant and bring the Marquis home to the Chelsea Hotel.  He died in his apartment three weeks later.

Writers David Goodman Croly and his wife, the former Jane Cunningham were early residents.  Unfortunately, Croly was what might be termed a white supremacist today.  During the Civil War he co-authored a pamphlet Miscegenation, the goal of which was to derail the abolitionist movement and discredit the Lincoln Administration by heightening racist fears.  Croly died in 1889.

Jane Cunningham Croly from the collection of the General Federation of Women's Clubs
Jane Cunningham Croly lived on in the Chelsea Hotel writing under the pseudonym Jennie June.  She was a pioneer feminist, was editor of Demorest's Magazine, founder and editor of the Cycle Magazine and of the Home-Maker MagazineOn June 6, 1898 The Sun reported "Mrs. J. C. Croly, better known by her nom de plume, 'Jennie June,' is seriously ill at her apartments in the Chelsea."  The 69-year old had broken her hip in a fall on a flight of stairs at the Le Boutillier Brothers' department store.  The article noted "it was at first feared that she might not recover, but she is now reported doing as well as the nature of her injury will admit."  Croly never fully recovered, but did live until December 23, 1901.

Stage and film actors were also drawn to the Chelsea Hotel.  Among the first were Lily Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt.  By 1921 Nita Martan lived here.  The motion picture actress went by the professional name of Manila Martan and was best known for her repeated roles in the Tarzan serials.  She shared her apartment with Jimmie, a squirrel.

Manila Martan poses with an elephant for this publicity shot.  from the collection of the Library of Congress

On November 21 that year the New-York Tribune reported "'Jimmie,' New York's most highly educated red squirrel finds Miss Manila Martan's millinery none too delectable.  His mistress (perhaps you recognize her as the wild girl in the Tarzan pictures) delayed her screen activities with wild animals to teach this clever rodent several tricks, the most unique being to use the phonograph in Miss Martan's apartment at the Hotel Chelsea as a merry-go-'round."

Portrait artist Joseph Cummings Chase lived and worked in the Chelsea at the time.  Among the hundreds of portraits he executed were 142 paintings of generals and war heroes of World War I.

Joseph Cummings Chase works on a portrait of Mary Katherine Campbell, the recently crowned "Miss Columbus" of the 1922 Atlantic City beauty contest, in his Chelsea Hotel apartment.  New-York Tribune, September 24, 1922 (copyright expired)

Also living here at the time were novelist Henry Sydnor Harrison, whose works included Queen, Angela's Business, and Marriage; author Thomas Wolfe (who wrote his last novel You Can't Go Home Again here) and Civil War veteran Charles P. Champion.

Champion was one of the original stockholders in the Chelsea Hotel.  One of the founders of the Union League Club, The New York Times recalled that as a member of the renowned Seventh Regiment he "marched down Broadway to the Civil War in 1861.  After an illness of several months the 94-year old died in his apartment on May 1, 1931.  The Times noted, "Had Mr. Champion lived one year longer he would have completed the occupation of his suite at the Hotel Chelsea for the full term of his original lease, which was for fifty years."

In 1952 the aging structure was converted to what the Department of Buildings designated as a "Class B hotel," with furnished rooms and apartments.

By by 1960's and '70s the Chelsea was where both the celebrated and the infamous lived.  Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001 - A Space Odyssey here.  Arthur Miller lived at the Chelsea for 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 Hotel, too.  Poet and writer Dylan Thomas lived in Room 205 in 1953 and there, after eighteen 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 suspicion of murder, died of a heroin overdose shortly thereafter. 

Over the years the management would sometimes accept artwork 
from struggling artists in lieu of back rent, 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 on November 25, 1988 at the age of 112, he was the world's oldest man.

Musicians Madonna, Patti Smith, Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen 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."

The owners began a renovation in 2007--one that is still ongoing.  On February 28, 2020 Zoe Pappas, president of the Chelsea Hotel Tenants Association told Spectrum News "We, the majority, want this building to be finished."   Seven tenants, however, had sued and a stop work order was imposed.  According to Spectrum News's Michael Scotto, "The owner says the seven tenants have said they would drop their suits and leave in return for a $50 million settlement...The owner says he's not paying $50 million and vows to finish the work."

photograph by Nikk0
In the meantime, the embattled, extraordinary piece of Manhattan's architectural, social and art history is a treasure.


  1. Sorry to report that, around 2015 the Corcoran Gallery dissolved. Happily, most of the art collection was given to the National Gallery. See:

  2. I was passionate about Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin separately, and certainly paid my respects at the Chelsea Hotel the first time I visited your city. But I had no idea that the Queen Anne style incorporated the latest in architectural trends. I assumed the many tiers of cast iron balconies with French doors was an architectural compromise or adaptation. Ditto the mansard roof with its dormers and chimneys, soaring end gables and a central tower.

    Thank you for the link
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  3. To add some necessary context, Zoe Pappas is a self-appointed head of a Tenant Association which was literally never "the majority" except years later, via attrition. Pappas is actually the tenant who was illegally gutting historic guest rooms on behalf of the hotel's corporate partners following their 2007 hostile takeover. Pappas was stopped by her neighbors who summoned the Department of Buildings, and the hotel was cited for operating without permits or precautions. DOB declared a building-wide Stop Work Order that lasted two years. It was about this time that Pappas dubiously began to call herself a "tenant advocate" and started collecting donations in the name of all 100+ Hotel Chelsea tenants engaged in this battle against constructive eviction. Pappas even named the charitable fund the "For All" fund. The funds, however, were ONLY used to benefit tenants who 'went along' with Pappas as part of her TA, while the actual majority of tenants were left to fight with or without their own lawyers, losing their homes one-by-one.