By Brian J. Pape and Bruce Poli
These two articles compare the good and bad sides of the most powerful forces in New York City—artistic and historic character… and profit seeking “progress.” To see both sides, Brian J. Pape and Bruce Poli have chosen the Chelsea Hotel—touchstone of the great musical, literary and performing arts culture of New York and its intriguing relationship with celebrity, drugs, violence, death and money—New York’s favorite subjects.
Art and (Real Estate) Business Make the Perfect Marriage (or Maybe Not)
What is more culturally iconic in New York City than the Chelsea Hotel?
And what is New York City without its culture?
But it seems like we are starting to live in post-cultural times.
At the Whitney Museum Biennial last year, there was a saying on the wall on the sixth floor: “The greatest concentration of wealth in the world is in New York Real Estate and Contemporary Art.”
If this is true — and it may well be — why are they clashing at our expense?
A great example of where creativity and destruction clash is how New York real estate is manipulating (destroying) New York culture in none other than: the Chelsea Hotel.
As we are losing our restaurants, we are losing our mom-and-pop stores, our neighborhoods, our character as New York, real estate ramps up its scorched earth policy, turning New York City into buildings and finance with a culture (think China/ Hong Kong/Singapore) that is simply about money exchange. And the hell with the New York experience (which brings 65 million tourists and $5 billion in tourism annually as NYC’s third biggest industry—yes, real estate is #1).
To be fair, this is becoming a national trend; go to Houston, Atlanta, or Phoenix (Chicago and LA), and you will see faceless style-less glass and steel skyscrapers — maybe dozens of them — shaping the “new” American cities.
The future looks pretty monolithic.
This is why the West Village is now considered a fast shrinking haven of New York’s real historic character. Aren’t we lucky… until…
The Chelsea Hotel has been many things: home to crazed and creative artists and hangers on of all stripes: Andy Warhol, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell. Sid Vicious (who famously stabbed his girlfriend to death there in 1978) and Dylan Thomas (who famously died while living there in 1953 after drinking too many scotch whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern — which instantly made the establishment into one of the Village’s iconic tourist sites.
Who thought that the gradual demise of the great Chelsea Hotel character would take place at the hands of real estate developers as they swept across Manhattan ruining everything in their path to make more money?
220 Chelsea Hotel doors — speaking of character — were thrown out on the street to be discarded in February.
An astute pair of cultural mavens—Jim Georgiou and Cigdem Tankut salvaged and stored 71 of them in the Bronx, put 55 Chelsea Hotel doors up for auction in April where $432,000 was made in sales, $100,000 for ONE OF Bob Dylan’s doors alone.
How can you prove that a door ‘belonged’ to an icon and therefore has high value?
Or for that matter, why would developers want to redesign the Chelsea Hotel in a modern vein, abandoning its historic import?
This is the great tale of New York culture and the economy underscoring the Whitney Biennial statement.
And…these are the thoughts that bombard us every day as New Yorkers.
Is real estate—the biggest industry in New York—ruining its reason for being and our New York character as we pander to international financial greed?
And — as Brian points out so well in his article — what is a “landmark” building or concept? The outside may look good but what of the core values inside?
Is the Chelsea Hotel the model of our future American intellectual and artistic cultural life? Will the Trump real estate power and corruption story in New York (see New York Magazine’s “The Worst Human Being Who Ever Lived,” by Frank Rich April 30-May 13) be our pathway to hell?
I applaud the Chelsea Hotel’s new owners’ verbal commitment to historic and cultural integrity; but we must ask ourselves what does New York’s metaphoric skyline horizon look like?
Landmarked Changes at The Chelsea Hotel
The Chelsea Hotel has seen a lot, and its residents have interesting stories to tell.
Designed by architect Philip Hubert, of Hubert, Pirsson & Company, in 1883 as one of New York’s first cooperative apartments, and the tallest residence in the city until 1902, it was always a very special building. Built at 222 West 23rd Street, described, variously, as Queen Anne Revival and Victorian Gothic style, it features delicate, flower-ornamented, iron balconies on its facade, and a grand interior staircase extending upward twelve floors. Architect Hubert designed apartments for the people who built the building: its construction workers and interior decorators; then, surrounded these laborers with writers, musicians, and actors. The top floor was given over to 15 artist studios.
After the theater district migrated uptown, and the neighborhood became commercialized, the residential building changed in 1905 into a hotel. Stanley Bard (1934–2017), whose father David had been one of three partners who bought the declining 250-key hotel in 1943, assumed management in the early 1970s, running it in bohemian, laissez-faire manner, saying, “Over the years, people here have created some really beautiful, meaningful things, and they just needed that little bit of help to be able to do it. This hotel has heart and soul and it’s not all about the bottom line!”
The Chelsea was sold to the real estate magnate, Joseph Chetrit, for approximately $80 million in 2011; Chetrit sold the property to King & Grove, a boutique-hotel chain, later in 2011. Architect Gene Kaufman returned to the Landmark Preservation Commission in April 2012 to receive approval for his revised plans for the Hotel Chelsea, which included removing the planters from the balconies, filling the transom windows with colored glass, slightly reducing the proposed rooftop addition, which will be metal instead of stucco. The Chelsea has been a designated New York City landmark since 1966, and on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.
Sean MacPherson, Ira Drukier, and Richard Born, partners in SIR Chelsea LLC, owner since 2016 (after paying $250 million), have other properties, such as the Bowery, Ludlow, and Maritime Hotels. Ira Drukier said recently that 48 long-term tenants remained, and the goal was to open rooms on the upper floors later in 2018. Ancient pipes ruptured during renovations, flooding apartments, and neighbors returned home from work to find their front doors sealed in plastic wrap. The 250-key hotel will now be 130 rooms, including 30 new one and two-bedroom market rate rentals with access to hotel services, the 48 apartments for current tenants who are protected by New York City Rent Stabilization Law (RSL), first floor restaurant, lobby lounge, greenhouse, and private event space. An owner’s rep said “The art has not disappeared. It’s all stored, catalogued, and being taken care of so it doesn’t get damaged during the renovation. Staying true to the spirit of the Chelsea is not just the right thing — it’s the most profitable thing.”
Zoe Pappas, the head of the tenants’ association, said the owners had been responsive to concerns. She also said that tenants who had moved within the building had been able to add personal touches to their new apartments, choosing tile for the bathrooms or adding trim molding where they wanted it.
Former tenant Jim Georgiou lived at the hotel from 2002 to 2011, and though homeless soon after, continued to avail himself of the hotel’s hallway bathrooms, thanks to the kindly staff. At one point, construction workers told him the old doors were going to be thrown away, so “My first impulse was to preserve them because of how much the Chelsea meant to me. They remind me of the incredible life I had there and of all the lives of the people who have called the Chelsea Hotel home too,” Georgios told artnet News in an email. The Guernsey’s Auction House on April 12 sold 55 of the original doors that once opened onto the rooms of Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, among other creative luminaries. A portion of the auction proceeds will go to City Harvest charity, where each $1,000 raised would feed 1,000 homeless meals.
Questions remain about what characters will inhabit the storied hotel, and what the vibe will be. Will the owners take a different approach to salvaging every artistic scrap in the building? Will the spirit of Stanley, and his undying dedication to the arts he loved, live on?