The fabled Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan was home to Mark Twain, Virgil Thomson and Brendan Behan. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, there. Jack Kerouac worked on On the Road. Bob Dylan wrote "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Artists Larry Rivers and Mark Rothko, and scores of painters and photographers also spent creative time there. But now the future of the hotel is up in the air.
Multimedia and performance artist Nicola L. has been at the Chelsea some 30 years. She came, she returned to France, she rented another New York apartment, and then she returned. "You come back to Chelsea like you go to your mother when something is wrong," she says.
But the building has been sold. Once filled with art by residents, the walls and stairwells are mostly bare now. Only the long-term residents remain. The staff — some of whom had been there for decades — have been let go. When the staff left, says Nicola L., "the bellman, the people at the desk — it was like we didn't have family anymore and we were in an empty boat. "
The Chelsea Hotel is unlike any other in New York. It's split between rental apartments, and tiny hotel rooms where people could stay for a night. Ed Hamilton, author of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, has lived there for 16 years. The first apartment he had cost him $500 a month.
"It must have been 100 square feet," he says. Now he lives with his wife in a room that's twice that size but seems minuscule: no kitchen, the bathroom is down the hall, clothes are hanging on the walls.
"I came here to be a writer because it seemed like the place to go," he says. "I was in my mid-30s. We had always heard about this place because Thomas Wolfe had lived here, and the beat writers."
The hotel is filled with ghosts. Not only those of Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death at the Chelsea, or Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sid Vicious, who was stabbed to death in their room, but all kinds of ghosts. Sherill Tippins has spent six years writing a book on the Chelsea. She once brought a friend to the hotel who claimed she could see ghosts.
The friend was up all night, talking to the ghosts, Tippins reports. "She told me, 'They're everywhere — in the elevators and in the lobby, and they want attention so much.' " Larry Rivers, the "leading ghost," told the friend: "It is not about the art, it is about the life. That is the important thing here."
And that's what most residents will tell you. Scott Griffin, a theater producer, is head of the residents association. He has lived at the Chelsea for nearly 20 years. He says Arthur Miller and Robert Altman nurtured him at the Chelsea and made his career possible. "The core value of the Chelsea is not in steel or in bricks, but is in the life force that it has," he adds.
Originally built in the 1880s by Philip Hubert, it was a socialist utopian innovation with communal dining rooms, artists' studios, even a hospital clinic; Tippins says it was the first cooperative to have a mix on every floor: "Large rooms that people with more money can afford, and people who are more successful mixed in with smaller rooms of aspirers and regular working people. That was a deliberate design," she explains, "and I think it is the reason the Chelsea has managed to remain the way it is."
The Chelsea was also unique because of its management. Everybody talks about Stanley Bard, the building's former manager. Timur Cimkentli was a photographer who lived at the Chelsea, but in 1987, when he couldn't pay his rent, he became the building's bellman. Cimkentli says Bard told him: "Maybe you're not a very good photographer, but I have a job for you."
Cimkentli says it was a sanctuary for the artists, for kids who really couldn't pay their rent on time. "Any other hotel would have kicked them out," he says. "Bard allowed that to flourish; he was kind of like a huge leaf that kids could go under away from the storm, and that was the rarity of this hotel, that he would keep you on, he would see you, and you would owe him two months' rent and you would cry to him and he would say, 'Don't worry, keep painting, keep painting.' "
Bard was ousted four years ago after conflicts with the minority shareholders. Managers came and went. Then, in May, real estate developer Joseph Chetrit bought the building for some $80 million. Architect Gene Kaufman is in charge of the renovations, which he says will be subtle. Tenants are scared it will become a condominium, but Kaufman and others say it will remain a hotel. The first priority is to preserve, he says; the second, to make it safe and functional — issues like fire safety are huge; and then there is an obligation to the current residents.
Kaufman calls the Chelsea a rare and special thing, and says everyone working on the project realizes that. "We don't have a lot of answers yet," he says. "We are still thinking. So I do think it is going to take some time, and we don't even have a schedule yet."
Chetrit, the Chelsea's new owner, was called by the New York Observer "the most mysterious big shot in New York real estate." He almost never talks to the media, and calls to his office were not returned. Many people say they wonder whether Chetrit will fall in love with the Chelsea or run out of there screaming. Those are the exact words several people used, including Sherill Tippins. "People have run screaming from it, over and over, in the past five years or so," she says, adding, "I, too, have been tussling with the building for years now; it takes you over and you struggle with it; it has a spirit of its own."
But that makes her optimistic about the future of the Chelsea. "I don't think you can defeat this building," she says. After all, as Kaufman put it, "if this was just a nice building of the period, with no serious history, we wouldn't even be having this conversation."