Hotel Chelsea a Hotbed of NYC History

When I heard earlier this week that Ian Schrager had passed on the opportunity to buy the legendary Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, I had a mixed reaction. Part of me would love to see what the hotel impresario would do with the property, but for the most part I’d like to see at least one New York City landmark retain its tawdry splendor. And I say tawdry in the most complimentary, urban-gritty meaning of the word.

We just did a feature in Travel Agent for our 80th anniversary on the historic, iconic grand hotels of the world. No, the Chelsea didn’t make the cut (which included such stalwarts as the Pierre, the Drake, Raffles and the George V), but a case could be made for it. At least on the grounds of historic and iconic.

Built in 1883 as an apartment building on its present site at West 23rd Street, the 12-story Chelsea was New York City’s tallest building until 1899. At the time, the neighborhood and 23rd Street in particular were the center of the theater district and the Chelsea, which opened as a hotel in 1905, quickly become a magnet for artists, writers and performers of all types. Famously, or infamously, Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning there in 1953 and Sex Pistol Sid Vicious may have stabbed his girlfriend to death there in 1978. Despite the sordidness of those events, they are the two milestones that attract the most interest from tourists and New Yorkers alike.

But did you know that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there? Or that during the years Arthur Miller stayed at the Chelsea, from 1962 through 1968, his output included After the Fall and Incident at Vichy? And it may add to the hotel’s notoriety to know that Charles R. Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, committed suicide in his room at the Chelsea on September 21, 1968.

While its literary history is impressive (everyone from Mark Twain to O. Henry to Kerouac and Sartre is represented), it’s most known today for the musicians who have taken up residence. Some of the most prominent names include The Grateful Dead, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone of The Ramones, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Henri Chopin, Édith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen.

The Chelsea is often associated with the Andy WarholSuperstars, as the pop artist directed Chelsea Girls (1966), a film about his Factory regulars and their lives at the hotel. Chelsea residents from the Warhol scene included Edie Sedgwick and Ultra Violet. Valerie Solanas, the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol, visited the hotel on that very day looking for editor Maurice Girodias, possibly to make an attempt on his life shortly before she shot Warhol at The Factory at 33 Union Square, a brief walk from the hotel. In his memoir of the period he spent living at the Chelsea, Arthur Miller mistakenly recalled Solanas shooting Warhol in the hotel lobby.

Just think of the theme rooms Ian Schrager could have installed here! But the Hotel Chelsea doesn’t need an impresario’s touch—it has a style all its own.

Because of the great interest in the history and the culture of the Chelsea, the hotel is reinstituting the tours hosted by its legendary front desk manager Jerry Weinstein. The next public tour will be held at 11 a.m. on December 30th, 2010. The cost is $40 per person, and the tour should last about three hours. To reserve a space, please email [email protected] with your name and the number of people in your party.

—Michael Browne