This review of the (in)famous Hotel Chelsea appeared inThe Irish Times on November 21.
Few hotels have influenced popular culture like the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac stayed here when he wrote On the Road ; Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frida Kahlo are among the countless artists and bon viveurs who, at one time or another, called the Chelsea home; its faded glamour inspired Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Even punk rock has a claim on it: Sid Vicious was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in room 100.
The hotel’s bohemian heyday is now firmly in the past: rock stars and artists are less-frequent visitors, and, with maximum stays recently reduced to 21 days, many of its long-term residents have moved on. Today the Chelsea – 12 storeys of red brick and wrought-iron balustrades in the heart of Manhattan – appeals primarily to out-of-towners, like me, who want to experience a New York institution without decimating their holiday budget.
The Chelsea may have been taken over by ambitious new management in 2007, but it has not yet morphed into the well-oiled boutique hotel many patrons feared it would become. Rooms with shared bathrooms are available from €89 (€60) a night, and, as my yellow cab rounded the corner on to West 23rd Street, I was relieved to see the neon lights still flickering intermittently on the iconic Hotel Chelsea sign pinned to its front.
Inside, happy anarchy was the order of the day. The narrow marble-floored lobby was decorated with an eclectic collection of quirky art and even quirkier individuals, at least two of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan circa 1975. “Bear with me,” implored the overworked receptionist as he fielded phone calls, signed for deliveries and placated a pair of irate guests before eventually finding my booking.
“It’s crazy, man. I’m the only one here,” Pete the portly porter said with a laugh, sweat dripping off his forehead as he carried my bag from the old-fashioned elevator to a third-floor double room at the back of the hotel. “But it ain’t always like this.” If he was trying to sound convincing he was failing.
The room was an interior designer’s worst nightmare. Nothing matched, from the rendition of Malcolm X in red and black paint beside the door to the garish green walls and mauve flower-patterned drapes. Worse, it had the distinct air of an undergraduate’s unloved bedsit: an empty fridge in the middle of the room; an out-of-date copy of L, the listings magazine, on the scuffed dressing table; only two working lights.
The en-suite bathroom looked passable if cramped. Closer inspection proved less forgiving. The pastel ceiling was decorated in bluish mould, the combined bath and shower unit did not drain and, most egregiously, the toilet overflowed after just one use.
Judging by the phlegmatic reaction on the other end of the phone, blocked pipes are par for the course at the Chelsea. Within five minutes a gruff workman appeared with what might have been the world’s largest plunger. It did the trick – the toilet flushed without fail for the next two days – although he made no attempt to mop up the dirty water that sloshed around the bathroom’s tiled floor.
Of course, you come to the Chelsea for the ambience, not the opulence. And in that regard it did not disappoint. The hotel is an art lover’s paradise, with murals, abstract paintings, modernist sculpture and photographs lined along the majestic brass-railed staircase that dominates the centre of the building.
My fellow guests were equally colourful: birds chirped excitedly from the room across the hall, while the smoke that crept underneath my neighbour’s door was unlike that from any tobacco I’ve ever smelt.
Location is the Chelsea’s other great selling point. Best known for its art galleries, the area is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, and the theatres of midtown and the Meatpacking District’s trendy bars are all within easy walking distance.
The Chelsea does not serve breakfast, but the Empire Diner – once popular with Bette Davis – is just one of a number of great places to eat within a few blocks of the hotel.
Unfortunately, owing to a paucity of sleep, I found myself in constant need of a cup of strong coffee during my short stay. The bed was of reasonable quality, but its starchy sheets were as uncomfortable as they were ancient.
I left the Chelsea longing for a night in a conventional, well-run hotel. They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps the adage holds true for hotels, too.