THE HOTEL WHERE JANIS JOPLIN AND LEONARD COHEN SLEPT
(SORT OF) IS UP FOR SALE

by Ed Wetschler

Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was no rocket scientist, yet even he understood that Manhattan’s historic
Chelsea Hotel was both a good deal for a New York City hotel and a major hangout for artists, famous eccentrics, musicians, writers, and other celebrities. The musician’s appreciation of this most excellent combination was rather abruptly interrupted in 1978, when his girlfriend was stabbed to death—with Sid’s knife. But not even that scandal could stop the Chelsea Hotel, for this grand old landmark continues to welcome artsy guests, not to mention regular people like you and me who don't play in rock bands.

But time doesn't stand still, not even for the Chelsea. On October 18, 2010, the hotel announced that it was up for sale. Let's hope the new owners are gentle with it, because this place, as they used to say of Katherine Hepburn, has great bones.

Hotel Chelsea, Manhattan, New York CityThe building itself is a 12-story, red-faced edifice on a fairly unremarkable thoroughfare, West 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Erected in 1883-84, the Chelsea was not only the first building in New York City to achieve landmark status, but the tallest structure in Manhattan until 1899. Its façade is punctuated by a grid of balconies and fire escapes with curlicue grillwork, more New Orleans Ornate than New York Functional.

Mark Twain and Jane Fonda

“We have about 250 rooms,” says the concierge, “half of which are transient rooms”–that is, traditional hotel rooms. The other half are for guests on extended stays and more or less permanent residents. Long-term guests and residents have included Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke (he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey here), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Jane Fonda, Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers… you get the idea.

The lobby features 19th-century molding, comfy brown easy chairs, and a big marble fireplace, but what really gets your attention are the large paintings—all from artists who loved and/or still love the Chelsea. Look around: There’s a Sandro Chia, a Larry Rivers, a Roy Carruthers — and the hotel seems to have gotten some of their best stuff, too. Hanging from the ceiling is a pink, pleasantly plump, papier-mâché lady who smiles down from a trapeze. Turn left at the front desk, and you see more sculptures hanging from the ceiling, not to mention two bona fide, old-fashioned telephone booths. Exactly what Clark Kent needed.


Clark Kent at the Chelsea

But would straight-arrow Clark be comfortable here? After all, Leonard Cohen described the Chelsea quite accurately when he wrote, “I love hotels to which, at four a.m., you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room, and no one cares about it at all.”

No matter; Superman’s mild alter-ego would be happy at the Chelsea, even if the hotel is better known for its not-so-mild egos. Stacy Smith, an upstate New Yorker on a brief visit to the city, admits, “We had appointments while we were here, so I never noticed that there were famous people and artists staying in the hotel.”

You’re not alone, Ms. Smith: Many of us are clueless about the names on the cover of People Magazine. Besides, there’s no bar in the hotel lobby where a rock star might hang out long enough to be recognized. There is, however, a hip club in the basement, the


Star Lounge Chelsea. And just west of the hotel entrance sits El Quijote restaurant, a 75-year-old and unapologetically old-style establishment that’s almost a Chelsea Hotel canteen. Maybe most guests back away from the $40 lobster, but they do like El Quijote’s long, deep bar after an afternoon cruising the local galleries.

Odd Rates for Manhattan

The quarters upstairs show their age in both good and bad ways. Some of them are shabby; others are surprisingly large, with floor-to-ceiling windows, ten- (or more) foot ceilings, rococo moldings, and in some rooms, fireplace mantels. Here as in any hotel, you have to speak up if you want a different room.

The furniture is a mix of old and new, but the rates are decidedly old-school; some weeks, you can get a double in this historic landmark for as little as $159 a night. One other twist: Whereas most Manhattan hotels cost more on weekdays than on weekends, the Chelsea’s rates zag in the other direction.

Downstairs in the lobby, a visitor finds some of the guests buzzing about the Law & Order shoot that just wrapped up at the Chelsea. Bellman and do-it-all guy Pete Padilla, who’s worked at the hotel for 15 years, takes it in stride. “Things are very fluid in this place,” he explains cryptically.

One of the permanent residents walks in with her little dog, this being a fairly pet-friendly hotel. “Maggie, baby!” exclaims Padilla, getting down on his knees. The pooch jumps up on her friend and licks him, managing to plant a smacker on Padilla’s mouth. The kissee is not unhappy about that. Why shouldn’t a dog—or a human—act a little outré? This is, after all, the Chelsea Hotel.


A public note to the new owners, whoever they may turn out to be: Whatever you do, don't remove the art from the lobby. And promote Padilla.