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As Hotel of Stars and Grit Faces Uncertain Future, the City Shrugs

As Hotel of Stars and Grit Faces Uncertain Future, the City Shrugs

The New York Times 12/07/2010


The Chelsea Hotel seems like the last place that would go quietly into the night. After all, some of the last century’s most notorious deaths took place within its walls. It was where Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was stabbed to death. Where Dylan Thomas stayed during his last drinking spree. On the flip side were the boldface lives lived there: Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Mark Twain, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frida Kahlo and Tennessee Williams were among the dozens of illuminati who once called the Chelsea home.

Yet when the news came in October that the Chelsea, a 12-story Queen Anne behemoth built in 1883 on West 23rd Street, was up for sale, New Yorkers reacted with little more than a shrug. Never mind that the same families had owned and more or less nurtured the place for 65 years. Never mind that it had long been the breeding ground for boundless creativity and bottomless self-destruction. The closing of CBGB, the punk pantheon, elicited much breast-beating, though its demise was slow and steady. But the prospect of the Chelsea changing hands, ushering in an unknown future, barely registered a whimper.

“Its legend has been slowly evaporating,” said Michael Musto, the longtime night-life columnist for The Village Voice. “People aren’t viewing this as the demolition of a downtown Lincoln Center: it’s a place to stay.”

And, Mr. Musto noted, the Chelsea was not necessarily closing. “It could just keep going the way it’s going,” he said. “That’s why there isn’t a whole lot of terror in the streets.”

Yet by most accounts, things have not been going all that well at the Chelsea. Many long-term tenants have been in a state of uproar since 2007, when the longtime, beloved and eccentric manager, Stanley Bard, was ousted by the hotel’s board. A quick succession of management turnovers followed. The boutique hotelier BD Hotels was hired and fired within a year, and sued the Chelsea for wrongful dismissal. Andrew Tilley, the former manager of the Paramount Hotel New York, lasted seven months before walking out in early 2009, claiming incessant tenant harassment. “I find the whole thing absolutely disgusting,” he told The New York Observer. In 2008, a tenant said he had been attacked by a security guard.

All of which may have barely merited a lifted eyebrow in the Chelsea Hotel of two decades ago, when the hotel’s grit and bohemian soul mirrored the spirit, and perils, of downtown Manhattan. Back then, residents said, an in-house heroin dealer operated freely. At least one room was used as a brothel. It is said that a resident once called the front desk to request a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread, inadvertently using code words for a special delivery: a tray of drugs soon appeared at her door. Fires were periodically lighted by people who had passed out smoking in their beds. There were frequent suicides, with the despondent leaping down the well of the hotel’s lacey wrought iron staircase.

Gerald Busby, a 74-year-old composer — he wrote the score to Robert Altman’s “3 Women” — remembers stepping into the hall and encountering an agitated neighbor shakily sipping a beer. Moments later a crowd of police officers arrived: the man had just shot his wife.

As Manhattan cleaned up its act in the 1990s, the wildness began ebbing from the Chelsea. The hotel became less a symbol of the cutting edge than a relic of it. Priced out of Manhattan, young artists began colonizing the other boroughs. Still, Mr. Bard, the manager, continued to usher in artists, and whoever else caught his fancy, as long-term residents, even though the rest of the board found his management style somewhat slipshod.

“He had a heart, an organizing principle, he gave it integrity,” said Rose Cory, 53, a performance artist who has lived at the Chelsea for 25 years.

Residents said that Mr. Bard’s exit was a crucial turning point. “The energy changed,” said Robert Lambert, 59, a painter who is moving out of the hotel next month. The shareholders assumed control of the hotel, and Marlene Krauss and David Elder, the public faces of the management, fast became the targets of vituperation on the residents’ blog.

The hotel stopped accepting long-term residents; about 90 remain, down by about 40 since Mr. Bard left, said the current manager, Arnold Tamasar. Several tenants said the owners began evicting people by any means, a claim the owners said was untrue. Residents said they began feeling as if they were living in a museum, if a hugely disordered one.

“It just seems like a headless monster,” Mr. Cory said. Some rooms were renovated in soulless approximations of boutique hotels. The hallways, meanwhile, remained dimly lighted, lined with old paint and, as is the hotel’s tradition, residents’ art.

David Barton, the gym-chain owner, who moved out of the Chelsea three years ago, said the place assumed the feel of a theme restaurant. “There was a moment where the hotel rooms were really expensive,” Mr. Barton said. “Japanese tourists would come with 12 Louis Vuitton trunks, and we would laugh at them. Now it feels like Whole families from Cincinnati were coming in saying, ‘We want to see where Sid killed Nancy.’ ”

Paul Brounstein, a hotel board member, said one reason the hotel was put up for sale was factionalization among its 15 shareholders, mostly members of three Hungarian families: the Bards, the Krausses and the Grosses. They did not share a vision. None possessed Mr. Bard’s single-minded passion for the place.

“Times changed, the area around the Chelsea grew up, but the hotel is not keeping pace,” Mr. Brounstein said. Expenses are rising, he added, but rent-stabilized units are diminishing the income stream. Residents also said the place seemed to have trouble filling its 226 rooms, though Mr. Tamasar said that occupancy had hovered at 84 percent.

Offers on the hotel, expected to be from $90 million to $120 million, will be accepted starting next week. Mr. Brounstein said tenants would be protected as long as their leases were in effect. But there are no guarantees that a new owner will renew the leases.

Still, many of the residents cling fast to the hope that the Chelsea will remain their home.

“It’s been piece by piece dismantled,” Mr. Cory said, “but I love the place.”