Art Stays Alive Through The Hotel Chelsea’s Many Lives

The lobby of The Hotel Chelsea is stage-set impeccable: plush jewel-toned velvet couches, lush plants in painted potters, and lamp-lit warm corners. Its latest iteration makes it upscale and boutique, a 21st-century hip hotel.

The hotel was built in 1884 as a co-op for artists, and the building, a part of which was converted to a hotel in 1905, has lived a double-life ever since. Following a contentious decades-long renovation, the hotel reopened last year, with a luxury upgrade. But there are obvious nods to the creative colony that made the building iconic a century ago throughout the hotel. It’s especially apparent in the choices of art displayed on the walls, in the lobby, the hallways and the stairwell, mostly created and donated by The Hotel Chelsea residents, former and current, from the likes of Andy Warhol to Herbert Gentry and Ching Ho Cheng, acting as a bridge to the hotel’s past.

“Legend has it that many artists that roamed the halls of the Chelsea would exchange their art for rent with Mr. Stanley Bard, the hotel manager once in charge,” said Kristin Jacobsen, a hotel spokesperson. Though the legend is true, the arrangement was not so straightforward. As confirmed by the residents, the artists donated their art to Bard in order to get placed at gallery shows, earning the manager money, and the artists, popularity.

While the people who gave The Hotel Chelsea its artistic reputation — Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, John Sloan, Herbert Gentry, Jackson Pollock, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan, to name a famous few — no longer inhabit its hallows, their heart and history do.

“People just came here. It was easy. The atmosphere was encouraging,” said Judith Childs, a long-term resident at the hotel whose late husband was artist Bernard Childs. “You could do anything as long as you didn’t hurt people. And you weren’t supposed to keep them up all night.”

That was Chelsea’s original purpose, to be a safe space to create and commune. Though converting to a hotel due to rising rents and increasing gentrification, it continued to harbor artists, mostly patronized by Bard, who was also a co-owner.

Joseph Chetrit bought the building and shut it down in 2011 with the promise of reopening and reinvention. Instead, staffers were fired. Its extensive art collection, which belonged to Bard, was moved into storage. But tenants soon complained of harassment and hazardous living conditions; some even vacated. Slammed with lawsuits and building violations, Chetrit’s plans for The Chelsea never came to fruition. Over the past decade, as the hotel changed owners three times, some residents continued to stay, through dust and debris, fighting tooth and nail to keep their apartments.

“People always say, ‘How could you live through that?’ Well, it’s home,” said Sybao Cheng, the sister of artist Ching Ho Cheng, recalling the bitter days of the hotel’s makeover that started in 2011. “We really didn’t know where to go, and it’s rent stabilized, so that makes everybody want to stay.”

Rents at The Hotel Chelsea start from around $1500, with an average of $4820, according to StreetEasy.

In 2014, and again in 2016, the hotel changed hands. In 2014, the hotel was taken over by Ed Scheetz, CEO of King and Grove Hotels, who had co-owned it with Chetrit until then. More tenant evacuations and negotiations later, Scheetz made progress, even opening The Chelsea Hotel Storefront Gallery, an art exhibition space on its ground floor. But by 2016, financial overruns led to his dream’s demise. BD Hotels, which operates over 25 hotels and has one of the largest portfolios of independent properties in New York, currently owns it. After sweeping restorations of both the building and its art, the hotel reopened to the public in 2022. In its current standing, 40 residents live in their apartments interspersed with 160 luxury guestrooms. Classified as a luxury hotel, the basic room rates hover around $500 per night.

Paintings and photographs are back on the walls too. About 25 pieces took a trip uptown to Parisian gallery Fleiss-Vallois on Madison Avenue for a show that ran through December 23. The exhibition was dedicated to the art produced at or in association with the hotel, and was titled, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel…,” a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel No 2,” his ode to Janis Joplin and the hotel. The gallery, spread over two floors, showcased pieces that had never left the building before, and the lineup included Andy Warhol, Philip Taaffe, Herbert Gentry, Bernard Childs, Ching Ho Cheng, Martine Barret, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and more, including four doors from the original hotel.

“I was having lunch with one of the owners of the hotel. Speaking about The Chelsea, the idea came to me,” said David Fleiss, co-owner of the gallery’s New York space. He said he was eager for people to see the works outside The Chelsea’s context, appreciating them as standalone pieces of art and not merely hotel decoration. While some pieces were for sale, most were on loan from the hotel.

“When I first went to the Chelsea, it was a kind of an extraordinary experience,” said Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a New York-based Grammy-winning film director and photographer. He has been a frequent visitor at the hotel since 1970, when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University.

Greenfield-Sanders recalls attending his first party at the hotel with Tally Brown, a singer and actress, and subject of Andy Warhol’s productions. He remembers wading through a room filled with three feet of fall leaves to enter another space filled with luminaries whose work he had read or watched his whole life, including Warhol, and musician Lou Reed. “It kind of cemented in my mind how hip the Chelsea was. It became a kind of symbol of New York artistic achievement,” Greenfield-Sanders said.

Greenfield-Sanders recently attended a private preview auction at The Hotel Chelsea, for the artist Prince’s clothing. The small space, decorated with artistically faded wallpaper and peeling plaster ceilings, invoked a tasteful blending of yesteryears and the present.

On his first night at The Hotel Chelsea, Greenfield-Sanders recalled thinking, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place.”

About the author(s)

Amulya Hiremath is a journalist from India currently at the Columbia Journalism School, primarily covering literature and culture.