You wouldn’t be able to miss the Hotel Chelsea, if not for the huge sign above the entrance that reads HOTEL CHELSEA. Architecturally it is unmistakable, a redbrick hull dominating West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, looming large against the clear sky.
It is perhaps the most famous hotel in New York. For most of the 20th century, the Chelsea was synonymous with bohemian glamour: a resting place for artists, musicians, writers, actors and poets: Mark Twain, Mary McCarthy, Thomas Wolfe, Dvorak, Sam Shepard, Dennis Hopper, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jimi Hendrix, Ethan Hawke, Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone. Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac had a one-night stand here, each with their real names in the guest book and assuring the clerk that the box office would one day become famous. Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall here, Bob Dylan wrote Blonde on Blonde, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Edie Sedgwick set it on fire, Jackson Pollock puked on the carpet.
It also saw tragedy: it was here that Dylan Thomas is said to have said his famous last words, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys – I think that’s the record,” before slipping into a coma from which he never awoke. Here too, 20-year-old Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in October 1978. Her partner Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose four months later, on bail for murder.
Despite this history, the Chelsea have been in need of some love lately. The edgy glamor felt out of place in the 21st-century Manhattan of yoga classes and green juices, where hotel goers care more about broadband speed and gym access than whether Jimi Hendrix might have stayed here. Its future seemed uncertain until it was taken over by a real estate group, who refurbished and reopened it as a hotel that respects its heritage while at the same time being aware of a new generation, whether creatives or those lured by reputation from the hotel.
On my way to check in, I saw an unusually cool looking man at the door. He had long hair, orange-tinted glasses, and the laconic look of someone who knows his way around. I later learned that this was William Benton, a musician by night, a collaborator by day who kept the spirit of the Chelsea alive. He first visited it in 1996 when he moved to New York.
“I’m the only man old enough to have been here before,” he laughed. “I grew up in rural Oklahoma. Fresh off the farm, it was an early assignment to visit the Chelsea as it was associated with so much literature and music in my field of interest. Today he gives tours to guests and tells stories about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. “It still fascinates and inspires me. It’s a custom—not just in New York—to get rid of these buildings, and the culture suffers when that happens. I was relieved when the new owner took over as I had assumed it would be gone.”
Built between 1883 and 1885, the hotel is a Victorian Gothic stack with 250 rooms and 12 floors. It was one of the city’s first large apartment blocks, but became a residential hotel after the turn of the century. Although a haven for generations of artistic visitors, it fell into decline – a well-known cycle – until 1947, when it was taken over by art-loving David Bard. It was thanks to him, and his son Stanley, who took over after his father’s death in 1964 and ran it for the next 40 years until a power struggle forced him out, that the hotel maintained its reputation as a creative. However, while he could be nurturing, Stanley was also eccentric.
As Joseph O’Neill, Booker’s shortlist writer who lived in Chelsea for 10 years from 1998, says, “When I moved to the US, I had no credit history and couldn’t rent an apartment, so I moved to Chelsea. He wasn’t the kind of man to worry about that. If, for whatever reason, you interested him, he would accommodate you. But the community is what made it such a great place to live.
“It was a very neoliberal moment when I moved in here, during the dot-com boom,” he adds. “The hotel felt like one of the last fragments of a slightly dirtier, wilder New York.”
Stanley Bard died in 2017, at the age of 82, described in his New York Times obituary as a “Robin Hood of innkeepers.” By then, the hotel had been under new ownership for several years, and renovations, which had taken more than a decade, were underway room by room.
The Chelsea is still set up more like an apartment building than a hotel, with an analog appeal, all tile floors, copper and wrought iron. The lobby is decorated with abstract artwork. Behind the check-in desk, keys are waiting on tasseled key chains in a grid. The grand staircase behind reception is open and leads to the rooms, while the lifts have their old buttons. Bedrooms feel solid and built to last – mine was big enough to live in without too much effort – but adapted to the expectations of the modern traveler, from speakers to a seductive bed.
Downstairs is El Quijote, the hotel’s long-established Spanish restaurant, spruced up and joined by another restaurant, Cafe Chelsea. The bar is fast becoming a destination in its own right, a series of rooms where a scenic crowd gathers for cocktails. There will be a spa and gym by the end of the year; reasons to visit beyond history. The Chelsea is conveniently located a short walk from Penn Station for easy access to the airport, and nearly equidistant from Central Park and downtown.
Such a restoration raises the question of whether the charm has been preserved: what Arthur Miller described as “scary and optimistic chaos” combined with “the feeling of a huge, old-fashioned, sheltered family”. Most of the hotel’s long-term residents, who O’Neill says were the soul, are gone, though a few remain. No longer ruled by the eccentric bards, the Chelsea hosts guests on a more conventional basis, with prices starting at around $300 (£235) per night.
But at least for Benton, the spirit of Chelsea lives on.
“That’s always the question,” he says. “But New York’s history is one of constant change. When I got to the 1990s everyone told me I missed the party, but now I’m told I was there for exciting times. I’m not a fan of ghosts and woo-woo, but it makes sense to me to have a tangible link to this music and art and literature that are important to me. This building is that.”
After three nights soaking up the atmosphere – and a few martinis in the bar – it wasn’t hard to agree.
Ed was a guest at Hotel Chelsea (00 1 212 483 1010; hotelchelsea.com) which doubles from $300 (£235)
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