New York‘s storied Chelsea Hotel, the classic haunt of artists and hell-raising performers, is for sale and, perhaps, so is its soul.
The 12-floor building with the neon sign “Hotel Chelsea” is a landmark in Manhattan thanks to its long list of famous residents.
Playwright Arthur Miller and singers Janis Joplin and Patti Smith were among those living there. Poet Dylan Thomas died there, as did Nancy, the girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious.
Andy Warhol made a film called “Chelsea Girls”, while Leonard Cohen immortalized the place in a song about his brief encounter there with Joplin, singing, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel.”
In his classic song “Sara”, Bob Dylan sang about how he was, “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.”
The improbable list testifies to a hotel that was never meant to be just another hotel.
Built in 1883 on the west side, Chelsea Hotel was bought in the late 1930s by three Hungarian-Americans and a decade later, in the 1950s, entered its golden age as a symbol of New York bohemian life.
Three years ago the descendants of those owners squeezed out shareholder Stanley Bard and began their plan to throw the building to the market — a shock in a place where permanent residents were paying peanuts for the privilege.
The price tag is believed to be between $90-100 million for the Big Apple icon. After four months there are still no takers.
But among possible buyers mentioned is Andre Balazs, who owns the trendy Standard Hotel chain and the luxury Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. There are rumors that developer extraordinaire Donald Trump has shown interest.
Future owners may dream of cashing in on the Chelsea name, while transforming the quirky set-up into something more resembling a straightforward hotel.
Bard, now 76, hopes the rare formula of mixing low-rent, artistic residences with expensive hotel rooms will survive.
The Chelsea veteran remembers the 1950s, when he became manager at the age of 24 and New York was buzzing with new stars like Dylan, Cohen and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Those were wild times when booze and drugs flowed freely in the Chelsea. Now there are mostly just memories and mementos, not least the painting hanging in a corridor of Sid Vicious clutching a syringe.
“My objective was to give people the ‘Chelsea experience’, to make people happy,” Bard told AFP, as he showed room 712, a five-piece suite that once housed playwright Arthur Miller, his wife Inge Morath and their daughter Rebecca. A picture of Miller and Marilyn Monroe, his second wife, hangs on the wall.
Rent stabilization laws meant that many tenants paid just a few hundred dollars in rent, compared to hotel rooms costing $400 to $500 just for a night. But part of the Chelsea lore is also the way Bard accepted art works in place of rent payments.
“I remember seeing (sculptor) Arman works in the entrance and then Stanley was very friendly with (painter) Larry Rivers,” said longtime resident Man-lai Liang, referring to artists whose works sell for small fortunes now. “Those pieces disappeared for restoration and never returned,” she added.
Rock star Patti Smith, another denizen of the Chelsea, writes in her autobiography “Just Kids” how the lobby dripped with “bad art”.
There are still 90 fulltime residents and they are protected by city rental laws from being evicted easily. “We are impossible to kick out,” said Nicola L., a French artist who has been occupying a big room there for 20 years — even if there isn’t always central heating.
So can this curious old relic — and its unique collection of inhabitants — be dragged into the modern hotel world? Scott Griffin, head of the Chelsea residents association, thinks not easily.
“If they were wise, they would try to embrace the tenants and make it work,” he said of the future owners.
Griffin added: “What all these businessmen try to do is make it only into a hotel and when you do that, the building resists, because it is not physically designed to do that, in the same way that your bathroom is not designed to be a concert hall.
“Until the owner understands the longterm residents are a successful partner… they will fail.”