The Chelsea Hotel, in its majestic Victorian Gothic building at 222 West 23rd Street, has been a staple in many New Yorkers lives. When I was a kid, I’d look at guitars with my dad at Chelsea Guitars right underneath the hotel, and peek in the lobby. Built in 1885, the hotel (first build at co-ops) quickly attracted artists and musicians, including O. Henry, Arthur C. Clarke, Dylan Thomas, Edgar Lee Masters and Madonna. It was also the tallest building in the city until 1899!
Ownership of the Chelsea has changed over the years, and it’s seen its share of controversies. In 1934, employees of the Hotel Chelsea restaurant covered a mural featuring Huey Long, Alfred E. Smith and James A. Farley–politicians connected with the infamous Tammany Hall. The president of the corporation that owned the restaurant wanted the mural removed, because of the “indignity” depicted, but the man who leased the restaurant didn’t want to “submit to censorship.”
Over the years there have been a number of songs written about the hotel, including “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Leonard Cohen, “Chelsea Hotel” by Dan Bern, “Chelsea Girls” by Nico, and “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell. It’s also the subject of the poem “The Hotel Chelsea” by Edgar Lee Masters, a longtime resident.
In 1966, the building was designated a New York City Landmark, due to its “special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission also wrote that “the Chelsea Hotel was one of the pioneer Victorian Gothic apartment houses, that its unique array of balconies is an extremely attractive feature, and that it has always been noted as the home of famous writers and artists such as Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas.”
In 2011, the Chelsea Hotel closed to guests for restoration and renovation, and the question remains of whether it will continue to be a haven for artists, both struggling and successful, or whether it’ll turn into a $250-a-night boutique destination. But we’ll always have our memories of walking by, imagining the hundreds of stories taking place within.