“The list of Chelsea residents past is so impressive as to appear fictitious” – Sarah Vowell,  Take the Cannoli, 2000.

It’s unfortunate that most people’s knowledge of New York’s Hotel Chelsea is limited to its connection with Sid and Nancy, Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls or a Leonard Cohen song. The importance of the work produced by the generations of writers, artists, and musicians resident in the building has impacted on all of our lives. Not only is the scope of the work produced by the hotel’s residents vast, but its position at the forefront of the avant garde staggering.

Designed and built as an art community in 1884, The Hotel Chelsea maintained a continuous thread of artists until 2007 when its sale and refurbishment put in doubt its future as a location for creatives.

The hotel has probably existed as an art community longer than any other within the heart of a major western city. The remarkable nature of its longevity can be seen when viewed against the life cycle of most western urban art colonies.

The Life-Cycle Of Art Communities.

“Ever since artists congregated in west London in the 19th century, the smart property investor has followed” – The Telegraph, January 2014

Take London as an example. The regeneration of the city follows a well-known pattern; after decades of neglect and the dilapidation of buildings and facilities within an area, the subsequent low rents attract low-earning “artists” in need of inexpensive accommodation in which to work. By inhabiting unpopular areas, these musicians, artists, writers, designers, architects and film makers make them attractive to others. This new-found popularity inevitably leads to increased rents which the artists are no longer able to afford. This pattern has not just been confined to areas of London such as Chelsea, Notting Hill, Shoreditch, Deptford, Hoxton, Peckham, Dalston, Bermondsey and Hackney Wick but to similar areas in cities including New York, Paris and Berlin. Think of Williamsburg, SoHo, The Marais, Oberkampf, Kreutzberg…

“It is often wise to look at where colonies of artists suddenly appear. They arrive like the first swallows of summer, nesting in neglected buildings, harbingers of the gentrification to come” – The Telegraph, January 2014

With this as an established pattern of urban regeneration, some developers, investors, and city authorities give incentives to artists to move into run-down neighbourhoods in order to give an area an identity, attract investors and set the regeneration process in motion.

“Arts venues and facilities were a vital weapon in the battle to bring people to the area” – The Hackney Gazette, April 1995.

The speed at which gentrification can take hold is such that art neighbourhoods rarely exist for longer than a single art scene. For an art community to exist for many years within a large and dynamic free-market city would appear almost impossible. Even if the community was supported and managed and not left to laissez-faire market forces, increases in property values are likely to result in the community capitalising on the local boom.

With little protection (although funding for artists in the UK is available via the Arts Council and the National Lottery), artists are leaving London due to lack of studio space and the escalating rents of both studio and living space. This problem is more acute in London where, unlike New York, there are no policies on rent stabilisation.

Although a number of London boroughs require some new developments to include “affordable workspace” for arts industries, without timescales being placed on how long the workspaces should remain affordable they often fall victim to “industrial gentrification” where higher earning service industries quickly replace the arts.

Meanwhile planning regulations do little to prevent developers changing the use of buildings, meaning many purpose-built studios are converted into more lucrative residential buildings.

It’s because economic forces work against art communities remaining stable that the longevity of The Chelsea Hotel as an artist colony is so remarkable.

Utopian Inspiration

The Chelsea Association Building was designed by French architect Philip Hubert (1830 –1911) – Hubert, Pirsson & Company. Hubert was influenced by the writings of the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837) who believed that industrialisation in France had resulted in unfulfilled lives for all.

Fourier believed that society’s ills could be solved by the creation of communities of a prescribed size with individuals of different skills sharing tasks and facilities. Inhabitants of the community (or “phalanx”) could contribute as much labour or money as they chose, allowing them to take out an equivalent. A phalanx resident could, if they desired, choose subsistence living in order to allow them the time to follow their own creative pursuits.

Following the failure in the early 19th Century of a number of rural communities in the United States based on Fourier’s ideas, theorists believed urban locations would be best suited for phalanxes. A lack of affordable housing in New York created fresh impetus, and share-holder phalanxes, or Home Club Associations as Hubert called them, came into being.

Associations could reduce the construction costs of their buildings by buying land and construction materials directly. On completion, jointly-owned rental units within the developments would generate income to reduce share-holders’ bills, which would be cut further by splitting running costs.

Following the success of a series of residential cooperatives built in Manhattan in the 1870s and 1880s, Hubert’s Chelsea Association took possession of a vacant site on W23rd St. With Chelsea already established as a district associated with artists and musicians, association members were drawn from these groups.

The apartments were designed with artists in mind. The building included top floor studios with north-lights, and apartments with sound-proof walls to accommodate musicians and writers. The building comprised eighty apartments, 50 of which were for association members. The others, along with the shops on the ground floor, were to be rented to generate income for the association.

Despite this provision for its economic security, the building’s existence as apartments ended in 1905 when, following bankruptcy due to economic recession and the migration north of wealthy New Yorkers, the Chelsea Association board of directors converted it into a residential hotel.

Run by a management company for the following 40 years  – during which time its association with writers and artists of international renown flourished – the building hit a final bankruptcy in 1943 and was bought for a price well below its estimated value by an art-friendly syndicate led by hotelier David Bard.

A Healing Ruin

“This particular hotel was famous for its indulgent cosseting of creative genius” – Piers Bizony, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, 2015

For the following seventy years the hotel was run by David Bard and, more significantly, his son Stanley They would steer it – on economically choppy waters – through its most culturally important period. Artists including Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Christo, and Arthur C Clarke produced some of their most important work while resident at the building.

“Sometimes you get a room at the Chelsea in exchange for art” – Patti Smith, Just Kids, 2010

Throughout much of the Bards tenure, the building, like the city, was in decline. Alterations were made to the building to make it more economically viable. Many of the apartments were converted into smaller units and the communal areas converted into rentable rooms. Despite the continual alterations, little refurbishment was carried out on the main building fabric.

Despite the discomforts the hotel not only attracted impoverished artists but wealthy and successful ones. As well as seeking sanctuary and a place to work undisturbed, they all wanted the creative, eccentric, and morally relaxed atmosphere found there.

“The Chelsea, with all its irritants – the age old dust in the drapes and carpets, the rusting pipes, the leaking refrigerator, the air conditioner into which you had to keep pouring pitchers of water – was an impromptu, healing ruin” – Arthur Miller, Timebends, 1987.

From the 1950s the building entered a period where many of its residents achieved cult status. Resident artists increasingly published and performed works referencing the building: Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell to name just a few. These acted as finely-focused publicity memes targeting like-minded people wanting to be part of it.

Stanley Bard acted as gatekeeper, checking the portfolios and credentials of artists seeking low-cost residence and holding work in lieu of rent. With the pattern established, the building continued to attract and protect artists of different stripes until the ending of the Bard’s tenure in 2007.

The Bard family were removed as the managers of the hotel in 2007 by shareholder action, rumoured to have been precipitated by the accelerating property prices in the Manhattan real estate boom. The building was then sold to a property developer in 2011 for $81m. The building is currently undergoing a $40m renovation.

Since the removal of the Bard family many artists have been evicted from the building. Ongoing renovation work has made living at the building difficult for those remaining. Alterations are undermining key features of the original building design; a proposed rooftop bar is to be built over the artist studio rooflights and many original features including the soundproof walls have been removed.

To many, this heralds the end of The Hotel Chelsea as an art community.

Bring back the Bards” – Chelsea Hotel Tenant Activist Group slogan. A banner bearing the slogan “Bring back Stanley Bard” hung on the building between 2007 and 2009.

The Legacy Of The Chelsea

“The Chelsea Hotel represented something vital to the life of the city” – Sherill Tippins, Inside The Dream Palace, 2013

For over 120 years The Hotel Chelsea has been a patron and benefactor for the arts. Designed and built for artists, its subsequent encouragement of artists was not for its own gain. But, as has happened with so many of London’s art communities, escalating property prices and the prospect of personal financial gain appear to have ended this history.

It would be possible to produce another Hotel Chelsea if long-term structures were put in place. Arts organisations do manage to exist beyond the short term but often have to keep relocating when their premises are sold or redeveloped. That a single building maintained this role for so long is what makes The Hotel Chelsea remarkable.

Our major cities would all benefit if they learned lessons from The Hotel Chelsea and protected and nurtured artists. The Bard’s strategy for running the hotel wouldn’t win them any business awards, but it should win them lifetime achievement awards for contribution to the arts.

“Stanley Bard, the proprietor and perfect host – willing to take paintings in place of rent. Can a hotel manager go further for the arts?” –  William S Burroughs, quoted by Claudio Edinger, Chelsea Hotel, 1983.

Copyright – Roger Crimlis – 2016