The Chelsea Hotel: Inside an urban utopia

There’s a building in Manhattan like no other in the world, where Mark Twain slept, Madonna posed, and Jimi Hendrix roamed. It’s the Hotel Chelsea, otherwise known as the Chelsea Hotel. For more than a century it’s been a wonderland destination for celebrities and visionaries

“Walking through the halls, you can still feel the history,” said author Sherill Tippins, who chronicles the 140-year-old life of the Hotel Chelsea in her book, “Inside the Dream Palace.” “It’s always represented a place where you can be anyone you want to be. If you say you’re an artist, you are an artist. And everyone is accepted equally.”

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A Manhattan landmark.

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An urban utopia is how it began, when the Chelsea opened in 1884, with an idea rooted in the work of French philosopher Charles Fourier. “What he thought was that society should be used to facilitate pleasure in life and to liberate people to have as much free, creative time as they liked,” said Tippins.

An added benefit of the Chelsea Hotel? “It was cheap!”

Consider the list of luminaries who’ve visited: Sandra Bernhardt, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Stanley Kubrick. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe struggled there when they had absolutely no money. “Mark Twain would hold forth in the dining room of this hotel,” said Tippins.

“He hid from creditors?” asked correspondent Alina Cho.

“Yes. This was a time when he owed a lot of money!”

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The Chelsea Hotel opened in 1884. 

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Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lived at the Chelsea; so did Janis Joplin. They met in the elevator. “And then they fell into bed together,” Tippins said.

And there were dark days, too. Punk rocker Sid Vicious was charged with killing his girlfriend, Nancy, in a first-floor room. Not long after, he died of a drug overdose.

But today, the Chelsea is beginning a new chapter. Sean Macpherson is one of the developers turning the landmark building into a luxury boutique hotel.

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A view at the Hotel Chelsea.

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He told Cho, “I think the first responsibility is just to try not to mess it up, and try not to corporatize it, and try not to sanitize it, and try to let it be what it always was, and try to really restore it and treat it with reverence.”

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The restaurant El Quijote has reopened inside the Hotel Chelsea.

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Under MacPherson’s direction, the years-long renovation uncovered some original features, and sports original art work. “It all came with the hotel, and was collected over decades,” he said. “Most of it was traded for rent.”

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Developer Sean MacPherson shows off the artists’ “rent payments” decorating the walls at the Hotel Chelsea. 

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It’s not just the art work that will stay. So will longtime tenants, like Gerald DeCock. He is one of 45 residents who have called the Chelsea home for some time. He’s transformed his small loft apartment into a Technicolor jewel box. “Everywhere you look, you know, it’s a different scenario going on,” he said.

Cho said, “It is a magical place.”

“Yeah. And who doesn’t want to live in a magical place, you know?”

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Longtime Chelsea resident Gerald DeCock’s apartment. 

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This bohemian mecca has (and it seems always will) continue to inspire to represent something much more than an address.

When asked to describe the Chelsea’s place in American culture, Tippins replied, “It’s hard to imagine what American culture would be like if we hadn’t had the Chelsea. It’s an enormous factory of creative thought and ideas. It processes them, and it disseminates them through America and the world.”

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino.