The Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in Manhattan is the stuff of legends. Quentin Crisp was the Englishman in New York at the Chelsea. It was under this roof that Arthur C. Clarke penned 2001 A Space Odyssey and Kerouac wrote On the Road. Punk rock died in room 100, with the death (or murder) of Sid Viscious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen, followed shortly thereafter by Sid’s death. Dylan Thomas drank his last drink and shuffled off this mortal coil in one of its rooms. It has been populated by musicians like Dylan, Hendrix and Joplin, authors like Williams, Twain, Bukowski and Sartre, artists such as Frida Kahlo and Willem de Kooning. I imagine, in its heyday, it could have rivalled France’s Left Bank for artistic community and collaboration. The first time I heard of it was in Leonard Cohen’s song Chelsea Hotel No. 2, and later, when I was rehearsing for Cavale in Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth, which he wrote with Patti Smith at the Chelsea. More recently, I read Brendan Behan’s New York (remember him from my Dublin Canals and Bronzes post?) – he wrote that while he was staying at the Chelsea and he is commemorated on a plaque by the entrance.
Two years ago, I was in New York and got caught in a massive snowstorm. I turned a corner and happened upon the Chelsea Hotel, looming ominously large and dark – all those cast iron balconies give it a rather foreboding appearance.
I decided to duck into the lobby of the Chelsea to take refuge until the storm abated. The lights were low, the air was thick and there was a deliciously shabby, slightly seedy splendour to the place, with artwork covering the walls and a delightfully eccentric pink sculpture of a voluptuous girl on a swing suspended from the ceiling. It felt a little like you were in someone’s grandmother’s house, if granny lived in a really big hotel in the middle of Manhattan. It didn’t feel a bit like New York; well, not the New York I know anyway. It felt familiar; it felt safe; it felt like a respite from the harshness of the metropolis outside its doors. I hovered in the lobby, watching residents and guests bustle about their business, absorbing the atmosphere. I could almost feel the ghosts hovering around, discombobulated by my blasé voyeurism.
After all too brief a time, the snow let up and I ventured forth once more, but made a mental note that I should revisit the Chelsea the next time I had a chance. Boy, how I wish that chance had come sooner than today.
I was down on 23rd Street earlier today and remembered my promise to spend a little more time at the Chelsea, but I found that is no longer open to the public.The only thing I could do was take some photos of the exterior of the building.
It was sold in 2011 and the new developer is apparently making major changes. How major those changes will be, only time will tell. It is a designated New York City landmark, and is in the national register of historic places, but I don’t know how much protection that affords a building in this country, especially in the face of economic power rat-tat-tatting at the door. I really hope the integrity of the building and its history will be respected, although judging by some very distressed residents I had a brief conversation with, it may not be the case. When I got home I did an online search and found the Chelsea Hotel residents’ blog, Living with Legends (The Last Outpost of Bohemia) and it makes for a troubling read.
As I was wandering away, I noticed something on the lower balconies to the right of the building. Tiny tendrils of some kind of vine were twining their way around the cast iron of the balconies. The further along I followed it, the more invasive it got, until it almost smothered the iron patterns.
I do so hope the new management don’t let their tendrils smother the beauty and inherent culture of this hugely significant piece of New York’s heritage.