Book review: Chelsea Hotel unmasked

‘Inside the Dream Palace’ provides poignant background, but leaves out crucial real estate history

Jan.January 01, 2014 07:00 AM

044 Book review se FINAL.inddThe Victorian hulk of the Chelsea Hotel looms over West 23rd Street, as imposing a façade as it is a symbol of New York City’s cultural legacy. In its 129-year history, the illustrious structure has housed Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan and dozens of other notables.

But if the structure at 222 West 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, is a cultural landmark, it is also a touchstone in the history of New York real estate — an early experiment in communal living in a money-obsessed town. This fascinating tale is the subject of author Sherill Tippins’ “Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel,” published last month.

An accomplished writer with an earnest but evocative style, Tippins easily makes the case that the Chelsea is “like nothing else on the planet.” Still, real estate-obsessed readers may notice a couple of holes in her account, as she glosses over the Chelsea’s recent history and barely discusses longtime manager Stanley Bard.

Constructed in 1884 by architect Philip Hubert, the 175-foot-high, 80-unit Chelsea Association Building was the largest apartment building in the city. Hubert was already known for his “Home Club Associations,” proto-co-ops where residents split the construction and monthly costs to afford higher-quality homes. The Chelsea went a step further, mixing New Yorkers of different social strata, where old-money aristocrats had 12-room suites next to Bohemian types renting one of 30 short-term rooms.

Hubert was steeped in the writings of Charles Fourier, a French philosopher who advocated creating communes of 1,620 residents known as phalansteries. Indeed, Hubert chose the parcel on West 23rd in part because it would attract “a group whose ‘congenial tastes’ sprang not from their similar wealth, cultural backgrounds, or education, but from their shared tastes for novelty, social interaction, intellectual stimulation and creative work,” Tippins writes.

It’s a compelling backgrounder, not least of all because it shows how ascending real estate prices have long sculpted the streetscape and city life.

Indeed, by the 1920s, the Chelsea was struggling financially, and never quite recovered. In 1939, an investment group led by hotelier David Bard purchased the hotel out of foreclosure (it was rumored he won it in a poker game), and his accountant son, Stanley, took over management after his death.

By Tippins’ own account, Stanley made the Chelsea what it was — at least as much as the string of Beat poets, Abstract Expressionists, punk rockers and avant-garde gurus who lived there (many of whom have had gallons of ink spilled over their lives). It was Stanley who allowed artists to swap paintings for rent, who would “scurry from floor to floor, providing drop cloths for these artists, looking after their children, and mediating disputes,” causing playwright Arthur Miller to wonder whether “somehow the impressionable young manager had become convinced that the artists at the Chelsea were normal and that the people outside its doors the strange ones,” Tippins writes.

And yet, Stanley is a near-silent figure in “Inside the Dream Palace.” Questions proliferate: Who is this man? What was his life like? Why did he become so invested in the hotel and its residents?

Throughout the book, Tippins uses a handful of Chelsea residents — novelist and critic William Dean Howells, composer Virgil Thomson, rocker Patti Smith and others — to tell a story about New York’s artistic history. And yet, a deep dive into the Chelsea’s ownership structure and descent into squalor this is not.

For Tippins, the last major event on the Chelsea’s time line is the murder of Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, who died soon after at the age of 21 from a heroin overdose. That was in 1978.

Tippins concludes her history two years later, meaning the book is frustratingly quiet on the ouster of Bard as manager in 2007, the Chetrit Group’s purchase of the hotel in 2011 (when it was closed to guests), and the future of the iconic property, now in the hands of Ed Scheetz’s King & Grove hotels. With tenant lawsuits settled, Scheetz has vowed to bring peace and diversity to the Chelsea; he is reportedly considering adding retail and a bar to the hotel, where rooms would go for $200 to $1,000 a night.

“We want young people that don’t have a lot of money to be able to experience it and interact with somebody who may have the greatest suite in the hotel,” Scheetz told the New Yorker recently. The sentiment sounds similar to Hubert’s intention for the hotel over a century ago. If only “Inside the Dream Palace” had more to say on it.


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