Chelsea Hotel, New York review: A story behind every door

Read our writer's views on this property below

Forget plunge pools and minibars: the Chelsea is all about the tenants, writes Barry Divola.

I'd barely put my key into the lock of Room 632 at the Chelsea Hotel when I heard a distressed voice coming from next door at high volume.

"I don't need anything grand!" a young woman shouted at her companion, who was trying to calm her down. "I just want to stay somewhere that doesn't remind me of my grandmother's spare room from the '70s!"

Then I walked into my room. It was a box that measured roughly four metres by four metres and it appeared to be held together by thick, gloopy white paint. My grandmother's spare room from the '70s was luxurious compared with this. The sheets were thin. So were the towels.

There was a chipped set of drawers against one wall that supported a television that would have been cutting-edge technology if you happened to be living in 1989. There was no bathroom - I'd booked a budget room with a share bath down the hall - but there was a sink in the corner. Resting on the sink were some little Chelsea Hotel shampoo and soap bottles with the following slogan stamped on the labels: A REST STOP FOR RARE INDIVIDUALS.

And those six words explain why I didn't immediately turn on my heel, go down to the front desk and demand back my $US159 ($250) plus tax. This was the Chelsea Hotel. I would have gladly stayed in a tent in the hall to be here.

Why? Because this 12-storey, 250-room building on 23rd Street in Chelsea, New York, has the most amazing roster of past tenants, from writers to artists to musicians to actors to filmmakers. The place was built in 1883 as an apartment building but bankruptcy saw it converted into a hotel in 1905.

Behind each door you'll find everything from tiny one-room, holes-in-the-wall (that would be mine) to two-bedroom apartments with polished wooden floors, wrought-iron balconies and fireplaces. Today, about half the rooms are inhabited by long-term residents and half are "transient rooms" for hotel guests.

Many of the Beat Generation writers including Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs lived and worked here. Brendan Behan saw out his twilight years at the hotel as did fellow poet Dylan Thomas, who downed 18 straight whiskeys at a nearby bar in 1953, lapsed into a coma when he returned to the Chelsea and was later pronounced dead when he was taken to hospital.

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In room 211, Bob Dylan wrote songs for his classic 1966 Blonde On Blonde album, and 10 years later, in the song Sara, he would name-check the place with the line "staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writing Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands for you."

Up the hall, in Room 222, Leonard Cohen had a liaison with Janis Joplin, whom he met in the elevator, and immortalised the occasion in the song Chelsea Hotel #2: "I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet/giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street."

Arthur Miller lived at the Chelsea in the '60s and wrote three plays here, including After The Fall. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Andy Warhol shot the film Chelsea Girls. Madonna shot pictures for her book Sex. Ethan Hawke made a movie called Chelsea Walls while living in a two-bedroom apartment at the Chelsea after his break-up with Uma Thurman. Dee Dee Ramone, of the Ramones, shifted between a few different rooms during his stay and wrote a book called Chelsea Horror Hotel about his experiences.

And perhaps most famously in the hotel's notorious history, on October 12, 1978, Nancy Spungen was found dead from a knife wound in the bathroom of the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols. Don't go looking for the infamous Room 100 if you visit, it's not there any more. They boarded up the original door and split the apartment into two separate rooms.

As you can probably tell, the Chelsea is not about mini-bars, plunge pools and sleek modern design. And although its history is obviously a major selling point, there's also a creative buzz happening.

The lobby is adorned with artworks from former residents such as Brett Whiteley and current residents including Robert Lambert.The hallways and the impressive stairwell leading up to a domed skylight are covered with paintings and photographs by people who live and work here.

Eccentrics abound but there's also a regular sense of community. A dentist operates out of Room 614, a hairdresser out of 303 and up on the eighth floor is a Vogue fashion editor, her novelist husband and their three small children - they lived here from 1998 to 2003 but escaped to buy a house in Brooklyn and settle down. They lasted 18 months before selling up and returning to the hotel because they missed the liveliness of the Chelsea too much.

The reason for this strange mix is Stanley Bard, a 74-year-old whose father bought the hotel in the mid-1940s. Stanley worked with his father from the age of 23, taking over as manager in the mid-1950s, and running the place largely on gut instinct and handshake deals.

If you could convince him you had some artistic worth, and if he liked what you did, he'd cut you a good deal on a room and even let you fall behind in the rent if times were tough and your paintings or novels, plays or photos weren't selling.

That era came to an end in mid-2007, when he was ousted by the other shareholders, although he and his family still own a majority of the shares in the company. There are rumblings of plans to turn the Chelsea into an upmarket boutique hotel and many of the residents are worried they will face higher rents or eviction. A banner from a balcony reads "BRING BACK THE BARDS".

I met Bard in the lobby on my last day at the hotel and, although he was still smarting slightly from his firing, he proudly called himself an ambassador for the Chelsea and remained upbeat about the future.

"It will always remain," he said. "Nothing can change it. Management companies come and go, people come and go, but the heritage of the Chelsea and the walls of the Chelsea and the feeling you get from the Chelsea will be here long after I'm gone."

I'd been told by residents I met during my stay that Bard was a real character who saw the hotel through rose-coloured glasses and that he loved to talk about the famous people he'd befriended at the hotel over the past half century. Sure enough, he told tales of babysitting Arthur Miller's daughter, of his love for the work of former Australian residents Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan and then went on to explain that Sid Vicious was a lovely, quiet young man who never gave him a moment's trouble until his girlfriend ended up dead on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood with a knife in her stomach.

"And the rooms here are all beautiful," he said. "I'd put them right up there with anything at the Plaza."

I couldn't tell him that at least one of the rooms was more akin to a grandmother's spare room from the '70s. Besides, after five days at the Chelsea, I was spending the following night in a sleek upmarket hotel. But you know what? I was already missing good old Room 632. The Chelsea has a way of getting under your skin.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

The Chelsea Hotel is at 222 23rd Street in Manhattan, between 7th and 8th avenues. There are two subway stops at the end of each block on 23rd Street - the 1 and 2 stop at the corner of 7th Avenue; and the A,C,E stop at the corner of 8th Avenue.

Staying there

A standard room with bath is $US209 in low season and one bedroom suites start at $US249 ($331). You can ask about cheaper, small rooms with share bathroom, which aren't flagged on the hotel's website (starting at $US129). Phone +1 212 243 3700, see hotelchelsea.com.

Further information

For more hotel history and updates about what's going on, check out the Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog at legends.typepad.com. Blog writer Ed Hamilton has lived at the hotel since 1995 and has also published the book Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel (Thunder's Mouth Press).