Video excerpt from BBC Four’s “Arena Chelsea” documentary from 1981

A New York Legend: Artists at The Chelsea Hotel

More then, just a prominent song reference, the Chelsea Hotel in New York was a refuge for its creative guests for almost a century. “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel” sang Leonard Cohen famously. The longterm resident was amongst figures such as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Janis Joplin and Arthur Miller who at one point or the other became more than collaborators, or acquaintances, at the Chelsea they were neighbours. Birthplace of legendary literature, art and music the Hotel remains haunted by famous anecdotes, tragic deaths and never-ending stories that have greatly influenced American and European pop culture, as well as the visual arts.

Built between 1883 and 1885 the iconic building was designed by Philip Hubert from the firm Hubert, Pirrson & Company. Pioneering the “co-op” housing model in the 1880s, Hubert aimed to create a solution to the city’s most chronic issues, lack of affordable housing and increasing social isolation: “the city’s social fabric seemed to many New Yorkers to be irredeemably destroyed. People were so desperate for some kind of workable solution that New Yorkers from different economic classes started meeting in unprecedented ways… to discuss what had happened to the city and how it might start to recover.” (Sherill Tippins).

The style of the building incorporated two inherently different architectural styles, Queen Anne and the Victorian Gothic. In 1882 the building was considered a marvel due to its unprecedented height. It was the tallest and only building erected in the area at the time. Influenced by the social theorist Charles Fourier, who is accredited as one of the founders of utopian socialism, Hubert envisioned the building to pioneer a radical socio-economic model. The Fourieran philosophy of utopian socialism in its simplest definition followed the belief that a co-operative society would function more efficiently. Based on this proposition Hubert aimed to construct the city’s first co-operative building where he reserved apartments for the construction workers who built it, maintenance costs were shared amongst tenants, and rent prices were offered at a competitively low rate. It furthermore included a staff of servants, as well as amenities such as a theatre, a barbershop and a drama school, created, from the beginning, as an inseparable entity from the vibrant city that is New York.

Following a financial crisis, increased economic stress on the housing market and the overall rapid expansion of the city, the Chelsea went bankrupt and reopened as a Hotel in 1905. Situated in the Chelsea district, New York’s centre at a time before the Broadway, the Hotel was the nearest contact point for wealthy European visitors who docked at the Chelsea Pier to shop on 6th Avenue to 14th Street, referred to as “Ladies Mile”. One of the earliest famous guests during this time was Mark Twain before he purchased a permanent home on lower Fifth Avenue. Following another bankruptcy in 1939, the Hotel was re-purchased under a new management that included Stanley Bard who remained manager at the Hotel until 2007. Hubert’s vision remained present as the Hotel continued to welcome visitors from all over the world and of all backgrounds.

“A population of such social diversity had
never before lived under a single roof in
New York.”

Sherill Tippins

Photograph by the the Wurtz brothers, 1880s

Photograph early 20th Century

At the end of the Second World War, the prices dropped significantly, and the Hotel attracted more visitors increasingly. The death of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in 1953 who stayed in room 205, allegedly consuming alcohol until he fell into a coma, enhanced the legend of the Chelsea further. One of the many plaques dedicated to the Hotel’s former residents has been left in Thomas’s memory, reading: “Dylan Thomas lived and wrote at the Chelsea hotel, and from here he sailed out to die.”. Shortly before his death, the author wrote the final version of “Under Milk Wood” at his room in the Chelsea. The following decades are remembered as the heyday of the Hotel. Arthur Miller moved in following his divorce from Marilyn Monroe in 1961. During his six-year stay at the Chelsea, the author famously wrote: “After the Fall”. Within his memoir, he encapsulated the spirit of the Hotel as “the high spot of the surreal”.

“This hotel does not belong to America;
there are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and
no shame”

Arthur Miller

“What loves were lived here,
what despairs endured
What children were born here, and what
mourners went
Out of its doors, what peace
and what lament
These rooms knew, long obscured.”

Edgar Lee Master

Robert Whitehead, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan working on a play at the Chelsea in 1963

Patti Smith, Chelsea Hotel resident

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel

Arguably the Hotel’s most famous occupants were Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin. Cohen’s “Chelsea hotel #2”, from his 1974 album “New Skin for the Old Ceremonies” famously tells the story of meeting a love interest at the Hotel. In 2005 the singer eventually confirmed that the song referenced his love affair with Janis Joplin. Patti Smith resided at the Hotel together with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who in 1969 rented the room 1017, famously the smallest room, for only 55$ a week. He shared this room with Smith who described the Hotel as her home: “I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively”. In her famous memoir “Just Kids”, Smith documented her days the Chelsea extensively.

Janis Joplin outside the Hotel in 1969

Janis Joplin at the reception of the Hotel in 1969

“Poets, artists, and musicians
Parade in by the score,
And, occasionally, somebody famous
Will walk through the front door.
And there stands Stanley Bard saying,
“We hope everything goes well,
because we want you here forever
at the Chelsea Hotel “”

B.H. Williams

“Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with
bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard
in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic,
desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling
children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums
and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie
poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and
French actors. Everybody passing through here is
somebody, if not in the outside world.”

Patti Smith

Stanley Bard, the longtime manager of the hotel, upheld a unique policy with its guests who were artists. While his father David Bard, who originally bought the Hotel, maintained a strong bond with the writers and philosophers who frequented the place, his son was more drawn to the visual arts. Shortly after his father’s death when Stanley Bard inherited the Hotel, New York experienced an influx of visual artists joining the eclectic community at the Chelsea. The Bard owners were unique and beneficiary in their approach with the guests, often having the artist residents who were unable to pay rent, pay it through gifting artworks, or writing songs. Bard once said in an interview with the New York Times: “Everyone owed something… Twenty, thirty grand sometimes. There was a time you could go to any art opening [in New York], and everyone in that opening either owed us money at one time or another or still owed us money.”. Andy Warhol, whose room door from the hotel was auctioned two years ago was a frequent guest. However, he later seemed to be reluctant to return as he associated the Chelsea with Valerie Solanas who infamously attempted to murder him. Two years prior to the attack Warhol had filmed his commercially successful experimental underground film “Chelsea Girls” at the Hotel. The film documented the lives of these girls at the hotel and starred many of its original residents, playing themselves.

Bearing witness to the “wild” 1970s, the Chelsea Hotel and its visitors were documents to various social movements of the time. Italian pop-artist Mimmo Rotella frequented the Hotel quite often during his visits in New York. In preparation for important exhibitions such as shows at the Sidney Janis gallery or the Jewish Museum in New York, the artist would live at the Chelsea where he met his collectors and friends. It was at the Chelsea Hotel where Rotella would experiment with performances, ranging from recitals of his epistaltic poems, to stagings of what the artist would refer to as “Spettacoli-Verità” or “Happenings-Verité”. Influenced by the sexual liberation and revolution of the 1970s, artists such as Rotella emerged themselves in the culture of fetishised sex, sadomasochistic rituals and overall the liberation of the body, the representation of the nude.

I also staged performances at the Chelsea Hotel. Performances that weren’t on the level of Happenings, but of truth, “Spettacoli-Verità”, as I call them. I use a female model and one or several male models to stage these “Spettacoli-Verità”, in the sense that they’re not prepared like the Happenings born in America but are improvised. One of these performances was called From the Chelsea Hotel with Love… At a certain point, I was dressed guru fashion, in the guru style, with a half-naked female model at my feet.

Mimmo Rotella

The work “Other Scenes” (1969) documented his experience at the Hotel. Its image source is a photograph of the April cover of John Wilcock’s 1969 gazette “Other Scenes: The International Newspaper”. Wilcock’s publication was heavily influenced by the developments of the Fluxus group and the Mail-Art movement. The cover shot was taken by photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender during one of Rotella’s 1968 performances at the Chelsea Hotel, titled “From the Chelsea Hotel with Love”.

Mimmo Rotella “Other Scenes” (1969)

Andy Warhol shooting “Chelsea Girls” at the

Andy Warhol shooting “Chelsea Girls” at the Chelsea Hotel with Mario Montez

Rotella met many of his artistic peers at the Chelsea. It became a place to meet and collaborate with like-minded creatives outside of Italy and Europe. The hotel famously became a centre for the New Realists of the french movement Nouveau réalisme founded by Pierre Restany. Rotella was part of the group amongst artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Christo and Daniel Spoerri, all frequent visitors of the hotel. Artist Yves Klein wrote his famous manifest “Le Manifeste de l’Hôtel Chelsea” at the Hotel in 1961. This was only a year before Klein’s death. He had travelled to New York and stayed at the hotel for an exhibition at Leo Castelli’s gallery that year. Unfortunately, the exhibition had proved to be unsuccessful, which prompted the artist to write a declaration at his room at the Chelsea. Responding to his American critics, Klein wrote in the manifest: “I can only say that today I am no longer as afraid as I was yesterday in the face of the souvenir of the future”. and “It is necessary to create and recreate a constant physical fluidity in order to receive the grace which allows a positive creativity of the void”.

“The building sits on 23rd Street with
the air of a great dame who finds
herself in the midst of a party of her
social inferiors but instead of
complaining decides to going right in
the fun”

The New York Times

“The Chelsea is a hotel whose occupants
never seem to sleep, never, worry about
getting dressed up,
and who conduct their lives as if there were
no such thing as the New York City Police
force.”

Wall Street Journal

While the Chelsea was able to thrive based on the principle imagination of Philip Hubert: to be open to all and to nurture its community, it remains a living museum, unlikely to host the next wave of artists of this generation. Today, not much has remained of the Chelsea Hotel. The building’s structure is a ruin; its longterm residents are often without electricity and water. After Stanley Bard’s death, the hotel went through the hands of multiple companies that went bankrupt. Its current owners plan to make a luxury boutique hotel out of it. It seems that for the first time in history, the spirit of the Chelsea has extinguished.