Patti Smith sends me to the Chelsea Hotel

I am reading Patti Smith’s wonderfully told memoir Just Kids about her early days in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe and much of it is set at the Chelsea Hotel on W. 23rd St., so today I went to revisit it.  The Chelsea has long-term apartments as well as hotel rooms and, like Christiania in Copenhagen, is almost a city-state unto itself, a haven of social freedom and sordid decadence that has drawn artists and ne’er-do-wells for more than a century.  The famous artists made it infamous — Warhol made a film about it, Leonard Cohen sang about it, Sid Vicious’s girlfriend was killed in it, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there, and Dylan Thomas passed his last days there — but it is the unknowns and once-knowns that gave the Chelsea its ceaseless eccentricity.

In the 1990s, I knew a young couple who lived there — she was a furniture designer and it was never clear what he did — and remember their apartment for the creaking wood and drafty vibe that gave it something of the feel of a small-scale, urban version of the lodge in The Shining.  But by that time, the Chelsea already seemed too conscious of its history: artists lived there to follow in the footsteps of the artists who had once lived there.  As a result, I did not appreciate the place as I should have: if you discount the legend, history just looks old and worn.

Patti Smith does not gloss the fact that the Chelsea was already a self-conscious place in the late-1960s, when she and Mapplethorpe moved in — ironically, they have both now become the legends that the current residents are emulating.  But the Chelsea, then, was still a place where Janis Joplin would hold court after gigs and the folk musicologist Harry Smith practiced magic.  It was, Smith says, “like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone.”  If only it were still so: the Chelsea no longer takes long-term residents and only allows guests to stay twenty days in a row — though the place is landmarked, that’s usually a sign redevelopment of some sort is coming.  But for now, amid the Japanese tourists and young gawkers photographing the myth-making plaques at the entrance, a fair percentage of the traffic through the Chelsea’s doors still looks like extras from a Warhol film.

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Update (1 Aug): And six days after posting this, the Chelsea suddenly announced they were closing those doors to guests to begin a renovation of indeterminate length and uncertain outcome.  The Chelsea has been through some management turmoil over the last four years, ousting its legendary (and legendarily idiosyncratic) manager Stanley Bard, who was a part owner.  The Times writes: “Part of the allure of the Chelsea, beyond the creepy yet tantalizing feeling that the place is thick with spirits, is that from the inside looking out, New York can still feel gritty. Its cavelike hallways are lined with paintings, striking collages and old electrical wiring caked with innumerable coats of paint.”  In fairness, this is less true in the lobby, which has been spruced up, than in the deep interior but the architect engaged to oversee the renovations is Gene Kaufman and this bodes ill for the prospects the Chelsea will retain its unique character.

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