I used to live in Chelsea and whenever I find myself back in that neighborhood I am amazed and saddened by all the changes. The flea market is gone. Billy’s Topless is gone. New apartment buildings and the big Whole Foods, have all taken over. I miss the rag tag buildings on 7th Avenue. Change is not always better in New York. So many fantastic places are gone: Elaine’s. Tavern on the Green. CBGBs. The Oak Bar. And now, the Chelsea Hotel.
Writers, artists, and rock stars all made a stop at the Chelsea. Some lived there for years, some just stayed for a couple of weeks. As of August 1, 2011, it has ceased being a hotel while it undergoes renovation. The long term residents have been allowed to stay. Over the years, there have been a variety of controversies. The hotel has changed management and owners many times and some long term residents have been forced out. Many famous suites have been renovated and chopped up, ruining their history.
I myself have spent a night in the Chelsea Hotel. I had a birthday party there a few years back and luckily, got a room facing 23rd Street with a balcony. We could hang outside and see the fabulous neon Chelsea sign. My room did not even have a number on the door. I found it by process of elimination on the second floor. I knocked on my neighbor’s door who happened to be a permanent resident. He gave me some masking tape and I wrote the room number on the tape in lipstick and put it on the door so my friends would know how to find the party.
The party was just what a party in the Chelsea Hotel should be: very drunk, very loud, lots of leopard print and glitter and feather boas. I made all my friends take photos with me sitting in the bathtub. After a couple of cracked ribs, several hangovers and an intense bout of nausea, my birthday was complete.
Of course, I managed to gobble up all the hotel soaps and lotions that say: The Chelsea Hotel: A Rest Stop for Rare Individuals. Who can argue that?
The inside of the Chelsea is brilliant. The lobby is covered in art work by the residents. There is a 12 floor wrought iron staircase is in the middle of the building and there too, the walls are covered in art work. Walking down the stairs is one big wonderful museum. The rooms themselves are kind of trashy, with dilapidated furniture, threadbare carpet and no real dÃ©cor, but I want the rooms to be trashy. The Chelsea needs to be seedy.
It cost me $300 to stay that night in the Chelsea. Not your average downtrodden junkie is going to have that kind of money. The Chelsea, while a bit of a ramshackle spot, was still a bit pricey.
I also went to a party at the Chelsea last year. It was in a suite of rooms in the back of the building, so no balcony, but it did have a non-working fireplace and mantle. The rooms were shabby but wonderful because of it. The front desk called repeatedly to end the party and finally at 2am, we gave up. The writing was on the wall, so to speak. The end of raucous parties at the Chelsea was around the corner. We decided to walk down the art-filled staircase and took photos all the way down. Little did I know, it was the last time I would be inside the Chelsea.
Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Stanley Kubrick, Milos Forman, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Dee Dee Ramone, Dennis Hopper, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol’s Superstars”¦.all stayed here. The prestige and history of the place is just astonishing.
So many magnificent projects were completed here. Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” while staying at the Chelsea. Arthur Miller wrote his play “After the Fall” in Room 614. Andy Warhol shot his film “Chelsea Girls” in various rooms and Ethan Hawke filmed “Chelsea Walls” there as well.
Bob Dylan wrote songs for his 1966 Blonde On Blonde album in Room 211. Ten years later, in the song Sara, he wrote the lines, “staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writing Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for you.”
The Chelsea pops up in many songs. Ryan Adams. Patti Scialfa, Joni Mitchell, Jim Carroll, The Stooges and Jefferson Airplane among many others, all pay tribute to the illustrious hotel.
Outside the building are all the plaques honoring those who have lived there. The newest plaque is for Leonard Cohen, who wrote a song called Chelsea Hotel #2 which starts out with, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel”¦.” Perfect tribute to the man and the song.
The writer Dylan Thomas was staying at The Chelsea when he died after drinking 18 shots of whiskey at the White Horse Tavern down on Hudson Street, so legend has it. He has a poignant plaque on the wall outside, “Dylan Thomas lived and wrote at the Chelsea Hotel and from here he sailed out to die.”
The poet and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters has a plaque as well. He wrote Spoon River Anthology and also the poem The Hotel Chelsea, excerpted here:
What loves were lived here, what despairs endured,
What children born here, and what mourners went
Out of its doors, what peace and what lament
These rooms knew, long obscured
My favorite of all the plaques is the one for Thomas Wolfe who lived there and wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” in room 829. I would love to check myself into that room, armed with my laptop and aspirations to turn out the next Great American Novel. To soak up the spirits of the room, to have any of it wear off on me”¦how exhilarating! Maybe, just maybe Thomas Wolfe would banish my laziness and I too, like him, could walk the streets and say, “I wrote ten thousand words today. I wrote ten thousand words today”¦”
Of course, there are all the stories that the plaques do not mention. Madonna shot photos for her Sex book in Room 822. Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen to death and started a fire in Room 100. Apparently that room has been remodeled and no longer resembles what it was like on that fateful night in 1978. Who knows if this is true? I think the hotel is just trying to keep out the loonies.
Thank heavens the Chelsea has been designated a New York City landmark and also is on the National Registry of Historic Places. So whatever renovations are planned, I pray they don’t tear it up too horribly and ruin all of its character. I will have to make do with walking past the plaques on 23rd Street and rubbing them for good luck. Someday I will stay there again.