Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dream Palace

Sherill Tippins' "Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of the Legendary Chelsea Hotel" recently came out in paperback. I asked Sherill a few questions.

What about the Chelsea Hotel was important to the bohemian city throughout history?

The Chelsea was created in defiance of, and as a corrective to, the Gilded-Age culture in which it was born. Originally a cooperative (in the old, idealistic sense), it was uniquely designed to accommodate residents with a wide range of backgrounds and financial circumstances--people who had in common only a willingness to experiment and a desire to simplify the basics of life –housing costs, home maintenance, etc.—in order to live a freer, more creative existence. Artists were attracted by the large studios on the top floor; actors, writers and musicians by the theater and the drama school that the owner established nearby; art collectors and philanthropists to the artists and intellectuals already in residence; and ordinary working people and out-of-town visitors by its convenient location in what was then the beating heart of the city.

So from its first days, the Chelsea became known for its open, diverse, creative culture, maintained in implicit opposition to mainstream New York. Its reputation as a place where Isadora Duncan danced and Antonín Dvořák’s students composed attracted more countercultural artists with each generation, particularly as its room rates dropped during the Depression years and beyond. Bohemians like Spoon River Anthology author Edgar Lee Masters and “ash can” artist John Sloan were willing to ignore bedbugs and worn carpets in exchange for interesting neighbors, a permissive atmosphere and a lenient landlord, and word spread to such younger artists as Thomas Wolfe, Willem De Kooning, Bob Dylan, William Burroughs, and Patti Smith that here was a haven from the city’s capitalist fever-dream – a place to reflect on the city outside and process its energy into useful art. This became a global process as American artists made connections overseas, bringing Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, the French Nouveau Réaliste artists and others into the Hotel Chelsea mix.

By the 1960s, the Chelsea became known as the Waldorf-Astoria of downtown New York – the respectable if slightly shabby headquarters for those bohemians who could afford it or who could travel up from the East Village for projects and events. It became a figurehead for bohemia, a symbol of the importance of bohemian values in both interpreting and tempering the worst excesses of the city’s market culture. In a sense, it served as a kind of conscience for the city, reminding the rest of us that New York wouldn’t be the city we loved without the diversity, acceptance, and willingness to experiment that its population has always exemplified.

What did the city lose when the Chelsea lost the Bards?

The Bard family, who took over the hotel during the Depression years as part of a syndicate of investors, quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s reputation as a bohemian nexus, not only as a cultural and historical asset but also as a financial one. It was this creative climate that kept the occupancy rate high, not spa services and 400-thread-count sheets. As long as guests were left alone to paint, write, rehearse, make love, throw furniture, or smoke pot in their rooms, and to occasionally postpone rent payments until money from a play or a painting came in, they would continue to flock to the hotel regardless of whether money was spent on upgrading the building.

That idea--that it’s creative energy, not money, that really powers New York --has gotten lost in the years since the “last Bard,” Hotel Chelsea co-owner and manager Stanley Bard, was ejected by the board of directors a half-dozen years ago. These days, hotel owners lavish their guests with rooftop bars and roped-off VIP spaces, while the city dispenses tax breaks to financial firms and absentee luxury-condo dwellers, all in the expectation that luxury breeds success. But without diversity– and without the creatives who feed on a diverse population and process its ideas – there is no New York.

At this point, what's in store for the future of the hotel?

The Chelsea’s new owner, Ed Scheetz, has expressed sincere passion for the history of the hotel and has announced his intention to recreate its original environment “conducive to individuality, authenticity, creativity, and community.” It’s difficult to see how one can transform a former utopian-minded cooperative turned bohemian enclave into a profit-making luxury hotel without sacrificing just that authentic spirit that Scheetz claims to want to preserve, considering the enormous financial investment required to bring the Chelsea up to par, but it’s an experiment worth watching. Reportedly, the new Chelsea will include a mix of room sizes and prices, a performance space and library on the ground floor, a fellowship program to house a half-dozen or so visiting artists at a time, and other features aimed at maintaining the hotel’s reputation as a haven for the arts. Can such artificially-introduced features take root in this new gilded age, as they did the first time? We’ll have to wait and see.

How do you think the new Hotel Chelsea fits in with the new Chelsea neighborhood?

The fate of the Chelsea resembles that of the High Line to a great degree, in my opinion. All evidence points to the hotel’s recreation as a shinier, more attractive, and much more expensive version of its older self. This has its advantages and disadvantages: tourists love safe, pretty, well-designed and efficient places, while locals tend to regret the “real” landmarks they knew and loved in the past, and resent the rise in prices as luxury properties proliferate.

I expect that the new Hotel Chelsea will serve as a figurehead for this new gilded-age stage in the neighborhood’s and city’s development – a symbol, once again, of the city’s cultural climate, and an indicator of its health as a creative nexus. If it turns out that the new Chelsea strikes many of us as sanitized, soulless, and overpriced, well, New York has always gotten the Chelsea Hotel it has deserved. In any case, I still have faith in the building’s ability over the long term to survive whatever changes come its way, and to bend gradually toward its purpose in spite of its owner’s good intentions. Economic booms and busts come and go, and with them new opportunities for innovation.

Is a Chelsea Hotel, filled with artists and eccentrics, still possible in New York City today? If so, where?

Certainly, in a borough where rents aren’t as high as in Manhattan, a “Chelsea Hotel” based on the Chelsea’s original precepts could be created, with serious effort and city support. One would have to return to the basics of a traditional cooperative – forming a “club” of founding members who would pool resources to purchase property, design it for their own purposes, and carefully select other residents and renters willing to respect a delineated set of rules. Some writers and artists have done something similar with small B&Bs, in Brooklyn for example. A larger cooperative would realize greater economy of scale and so could be even more effective. With Mayor De Blasio in place, and with the crisis of unaffordable housing so prominent in the city’s consciousness these days, now might be an excellent time for New York artists to study the Chelsea’s original plan and create something similar for this century. I say, follow the example of Hotel Chelsea creator Philip Hubert and ask ourselves, “Why not?”

Sherill is currently at work a book about the history and potential future of the New York Public Library. Find out more about her books here.


Anonymous said...

She said it: THERE IS NO NEW YORK.

79rigid said...


Scout said...

I frequently visited some Chelsea Hotel residents 15-20 years ago, all of them gone now. My favorite was an elderly arts patroness, one of the smartest, classiest New Yorkers I've known (now deceased). The other was an older artist, still living, I think, but vanished in the dark circles of substance abuse to rehab and back again.

But even in the mid 90s, these lovely people would sigh about how the Chelsea had become something of a mausoleum, as there was a dearth of young talented people moving in.