The Hotel Chelsea has been a formidable presence on West 23rd Street since the 1880s, taking up a large section of the block between 7th and 8th Avenues. A brick behemoth, a bohemian enclave, an anchor for the otherwise unmoored, and now a backdrop for a classic New York City housing battle. Over the past decade, the hotel has become a shell of its former self, as ownership has changed hands; we've seen its legendary walls enshrouded in scaffolding, and longtime residents leave as the building is transformed into a luxury hotel.
A list of notable building residents could take up an entire book—the Hotel Chelsea has been home to authors like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, and Jack Kerouac, as well as Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there. Edie Sedgwick, Elaine Stritch, Stanley Kubrick, Jane Fonda, Gaby Hoffman, Uma Thurman, and Ethan Hawke have lived there. Musicians who have lived or passed through the doors have included Patti Smith, the Grateful Dead, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Janis Joplin. There is no other building in NYC that has been the home, the muse, and the inspiration for multiple generations of artists. What will become of this place and all its ghosts? What about those who are still paying rent to live amongst the rubble? And what even is the Hotel Chelsea without its link to the demimonde of the past?
The remaining tenants are all that's left that represents the raffish past which previously gave the Chelsea its cachet; currently, around 50 of them are holding things down inside, amongst the dust, plastic and exposed wires, and five of them have just filed a lawsuit. While there are laws in place designed to protect rent stabilized tenants, residents are concerned, pointing to examples of developers disregarding these laws across the city. Defendants include building owner Chelsea Hotel Owner LLC, Richard Born (who runs BD Hotels, and in turn the Hotel Chelsea, with Ira Drukier), the NYC Dept. of Buildings, and the NY State Liquor Authority, seeking to halt construction work on the hotel until it’s established that renovations aren’t being used to force out longtime tenants.
This lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on Tuesday, argues that the building is still a single room occupancy (SRO) multiple dwelling, and yet the new owners enabled construction permits without disclosing that fact to the Department of Buildings. The resulting renovations, the suit charges, have since 2011 disturbed "the comfort, repose, peace, [and] quiet" of the hotel’s tenants. (We have reached out to the tenants' lawyer, Leon Behar, and the CHO for comment, and will update if we receive more information.)
For current residents who have been white-knuckling on to their homes throughout this volatile process, the future looks murky. Ed Hamilton and Debbie Martin, two of the lawsuit plaintiffs, have been living in the Chelsea since 1995, when they saw a listing in the Village Voice for a $500/month sublet (then-manager Stanley Bard later offered them a 220-square-foot room for $1,100/month, where they remain today). The couple is among the fifty or so who remain, and I've visited with them and others in the hotel a few times throughout the building's ownership changes, most recently in October, and prior to that in 2007, 2011 and 2012.
During the most recent October visit, we walked the halls of the building, looking at the former rooms of legends that are currently undergoing major renovations; the place had been stripped down, even the art hanging alongside the famous, winding stairwell was now in storage (according to Drukier) and other items—like many of the stairwell's rosettes—were allegedly stolen. Meanwhile, some things have simply been thrown away—last year the doors to the hotel were found in the trash by a homeless man who once lived there, and sold at auction.
Our tour, which ended at the bottom of this staircase, in the old El Quijote downstairs, now dark and covered in cloth tarps, began on the roof, where long ago some residents built their own bungalows. On my last visit there, mazes of greenery had pulled me through this utopian world—everything popping with color, it was surreal in its mere existence, and exactly what you'd hope to find atop such a legendary home to artists.
Some of those bungalows have since been demolished, gutted for machinery, while others remain standing and inhabited... for now. Someday soon, however, this area will be home to a spa and gym, if all goes as currently planned.
A timeline from Hamilton highlights the issues that have grown over the past decade. In 2007, longtime manager Stanley Bard, who had shaped and nurtured the Hotel Chelsea community, was ousted by the hotel's board of directors. During an interview with him just hours before he was ousted, he told me that he saw himself and the residents as "a Mutual Admiration Society."
"I created something over a lifetime that I thought was beautiful and worth preserving, and so respected... by everyone,” said Bard at the time. “I never wanted the Chelsea to be a conformist community. It's uncomfortable to me, to say the least. I have to protect the integrity, the people... and I feel these are my friends, and they're worth protecting, and that's the beautiful part of it. Why would anyone want to change that?"
He was officially ousted later that day. And the hotel hasn't been the same since.
Designed by Philip Hubert and built as one of New York City’s first cooperative apartment houses in 1884, the Chelsea was one of the city's "Hubert Home Clubs" intended as housing for artists. "Hubert had strong ties to the communitarian socialist tradition of Charles Fourier," wrote Dolores Hayden in The Grand Domestic Revolution, adding that the NY Times applauded his innovation. Noting high rents in the city, the Times wrote, "There has never been anything in the building line which afforded so much hope and encouragement to New Yorkers... it threatens to effect a great and most desirable revolution in keeping house and securing homes."
The 250-unit building (a hotel by 1905) was purchased in 1939 by Joseph Gross, Julius Krauss, and David Bard (Stanley's father). They ran the business until the early 1970s, around the time the building was designated a New York City landmark. And it was at this time that management duties fell to Stanley, who is inextricably tied to the version of the hotel that you read about in headlines and rock memoirs.
When Bard was ousted in 2007, Dr. Marlene Krauss, the daughter of Julius Krauss, and David Elder, the grandson of Joseph Gross and the son of playwright and screenwriter Lonne Elder III, replaced him with the management company BD Hotels, who only lasted eight months before getting ousted themselves. The hotel then underwent several management and ownership changes, once to developer Joseph Chetrit, and then nearly to André Balazs; eventually it all fell back into the hands of BD Hotels, helmed by Richard Born and Ira Drukier.
"Under this regime," Hamilton tells me, things have dragged on as problems persist. "The water, when not shut off entirely, is often rusty and filled with brown particles,” he says. “Electricity is often cut off; and heat, from a portable boiler on the street or from electrical heaters, is woefully inadequate. All three of the old elevators have been demolished, replaced by one new elevator (for tenants, employees and workers alike), which is frequently out of order, a considerable burden for the many elderly who still live in the building.”
Hamilton continues, “Since the roof was destroyed and not adequately replaced, leaks are frequent, especially on the tenth floor, which often has water streaming down the walls and puddles inches deep. Most of the security cameras have been demolished by the construction, and there have been many instances of unauthorized persons getting into the hotel. In order to get BD to address any of these problems, 311 complaints must usually be made to city agencies.”
The water. (Courtesy of Ed Hamilton)
And many complaints have been made; since my visit in October, there have also been a number of Stop Work Orders issued. One from December reads: "UNSAFE WORK CONDITIONS... ITS [sic] A LOT GOING ON AT THIS SITE." Others have included notes like: "THERE IS WEAK AND LOOSE FLOOR BOARDS IN THE BASEMENT. CONSTRUCTION WORKER FELL THRU THE FLOOR?" In 2016, the health department found that "renovations kicked up dust that contain[s] 26 times the federal limit" for lead.
After my visit, Drukier told me via email, "In spite of the short term challenges of living in a building while it is being restored, we would like to believe that all tenants will ultimately benefit from living in a much improved, much safer building." He added that "all tenants were offered improvements to their apartments, and the majority had their apartments upgraded."
Hamilton says his apartment has not received any improvements. "One of the improvements that the hotel made to tenants' apartments was to remove steam heat and install HVAC systems,” he says. “The HVAC systems are still inoperable and those tenants rely on electric heaters for heat. Even the people who took the 'improvements' are still subjected to the hazardous dust, lack of heat and hot water and electrical shutoffs."
Hamilton also says Drukier offered "to build a bathroom inside of my room," since he is an SRO tenant and utilizes a bathroom in the hall. However, he said, "I don't consider it an improvement to give up living space to make room for a bathroom inside of my small room."
Soon after Drukier answered my questions, Hamilton sent some photos (like the one below), saying, "[this is] the demolished SRO bathroom which was a few feet from my door. Since Ira knew that we were working with you on an article we think the demolition may have been an act of retaliation."
A destroyed SRO bathroom outside of Hamilton's apartment, November 2018. (Courtesy of Ed Hamilton)
Drukier has not responded to my inquiry about this, though regarding "shutoffs," he previously told me, "Nothing has randomly been turn[ed] off. In upgrading the building systems, connection must be made to the new code compliant water, sewer, electric, and heating systems. In doing this notice is given if we expect disruptions. While these issues arise, they are controlled and minimized as much as possible." He added that they "work under a Tenant Protection Plan approved by NYC DOB, HPD and the EPA. We comply with all life safety issues. As we’ve stated, we try to minimize the discomfort of the tenants as much as possible."
It's now been over two years since Drukier and BD Hotels came back on board. They now own, develop and will operate the Hotel Chelsea, which they plan to open later this year. When it reopens, it will be run as a hotel, alongside the current tenants, with "food and beverage venues," Drukier says.
What does that look like, exactly? "We believe we are enhancing the spirit of the Hotel Chelsea as it was at its peak," Drukier told me. "All the art is presently in storage and will be brought back when it is complete... during our renovation old elements of the original hotel were uncovered and will be restored. We are extensively restoring it to its original, including details uncovered in the renovation." Hamilton and the other tenants who remain at the hotel do so "as stabilized tenants and certainly will continue under those rules," Drukier told me, adding that "the DHCR regulates the rents of all stabilized tenants."
But while the hotel may very well look beautiful when it's done, that doesn't mean its spirit will be revived. Drukier says, however, that they would "like to think it will continue in the long tradition of being a place for artists, writers and musicians. As well as visitors to New York City who want to stay in the iconic hotel." He did not respond to a question about what the rates will be.
Even if there are intentions to recapture the magic of the old Chelsea, with Bard gone, there's no going back. "The Robin Hood of innkeepers died in 2017, about 10 years after being ousted; his Mutual Appreciation Society will not be restored, though it may be marketed to potential patrons.
The Hotel Chelsea you loved is dead. The Hotel Chelsea Luxury Hotel Experience™ is coming soon.
The Hotel Chelsea, 1978. (Shutterstock)
Following a recent visit, Hamilton told me that they (along with their fellow "leftovers") have been faced with a "radically altered living environment: there are holes in the walls and the floors, pipes and exposed wiring jut out this way and that from the ceiling, plywood structures block the hallways, the skylight and the windows on many floors are blocked, and everything is encased in plastic sheeting, including our doorway." This was all apparent while I walked through the halls with them. "We are living, in other words, not in a glamorous bohemian hotel, but in a jerry-rigged construction site," he said.
He also claims that "every day, five days a week, dozens of construction workers swarm into the building. They saw and pound and drill in the hallways and rooms and airshafts, in the elevator shafts, on the roof, in the basement, and even on the facade. There’s noise and vibration throughout the building, often deafening, teeth-jarring, and nerve-shattering. They raise clouds of white dust that covers every surface, providing employment for legions of moppers and cleaners—though they never seem to get make a dent in it. A loud debris truck crunches rubble in front of the building all day long. On the weekends, when we could definitely use a break, Con Ed uses jackhammers to open the street so they can work on the building’s new electrical system. And this situation, just to reiterate, has been going on for seven years."
Hamilton says that while 50 residents remain, "over eighty tenants have been forced out of their apartments, often settling for small, inadequate buyouts in order to avoid lengthy court proceedings and unaffordable legal fees. Once again, almost all of these people were in the arts: on my floor alone, we’ve lost a dancer, an actress/singer, a journalist, a photographer, a novelist, and the editor of a fashion magazine." He adds, optimistically, "My hope is that it will always be a home to artists and others who are interested in the history of the famed building."
The tenants who are living there have the legal right to remain in their apartments after the building reopens, but the fate of those two remaining roof bungalows remains unclear. (Drukier has not responded to comment.)
And it's up on the roof, where those handful of residents are still living in their bungalows, that the old Chelsea seems to be dimly shining on, almost as if in hiding, as metal beams rise up and signal a big change. Looking out from their perch, you can see that change all around, most prominently with those shiny buildings that make up Hudson Yards looming in the distance, reflecting the sunset back at us.
The roof, October 2018. (Tod Seelie / Gothamist)