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09.02.2011
Chelsea Checked Out
Community on edge as new owner plans renovation of cherished wreck.
The Chelsea Hotel.
Tom Stoelker

After sightings of Andre Balazs and W Hotel executives slipping into the lobby, the Chelsea Hotel, that high church of poetry and punk, finally found a buyer in August for $80 million. The property landed in the vast portfolio of Joseph Chetrit, a stealth investor who bought Chicago’s Sears Tower with partners in 2004 and has somehow become a major New York real estate player while avoiding the spotlight. That may not be possible any longer. Everyone from Chelsea locals and Dee Dee Ramone fans to lovers of raunch and Hart Crane’s poetry feel that a piece of quintessential New York is now on the line.

The Chelsea’s ramshackle quality was always considered part of its charm. A dank basement odor permeated much of the building. Blackouts, pipe bursts, and mice were common. Walls contain several generations worth of wires and pipes run naked along hallways. Fire escapes are only at the west end of the hotel. (Disclosure: I lived in the hotel for seven years.) The Bard family, who managed the hotel for much of the last century, seemed to take better care of the tenants than of the building. Artwork was often exchanged for rent.

The art-filled lobby.
 

Amidst the tumult of the last few years, many commercial tenants and several residents moved out. Those remaining will endure months of empty halls save for construction workers as the hotel has stopped accepting overnight guests to make way for a major renovation. Architect Gene Kaufman, who will oversee the project, has worked with the Chetrit Organization before. Like Chetrit, Kaufman has quietly built a substantial portfolio of boutique hotels, while staying below the radar. He made a summertime splash when he purchased a majority stake in Gwathmey Siegal (now Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman & Associates).

Outside of relocating the check-in counter to the old manager’s office, Kaufman didn’t divulge many design plans. He did say he’d like to keep a few time-worn elements. “The notion of shabby is nice but not if you have a spring poking through the seat,” he said. “There’s a fine line between that kind of feel and that which a hotel customer is willing to accept.” He added that the randomness of the various room layouts and assorted histories from Dylan Thomas to Jimi Hendrix would be emphasized. “I like that notion of individuality and paying respect to specific rooms. We’ve been talking about how to do that without a theme park approach.”

And then there is the art. Some, but not all, of the paintings and sculpture were included in the sale. From Larry Rivers to Barry Flanagan, the lobby’s collection was truly world class. But there was also a ton of art in the stairwell, the hallways, and in the basement. In some cases not even the artists know the status of their work. Joe Andoe isn’t sure if his traffic-stopping painting of a white horse in the lobby made it into the deal. Kaufman said “a major person in the art world” has been enlisted to help catalog the art and mount a show while the hotel is closed.

Kaufman has few memories of the dive apart from one snowbound night years ago watching the lobby sideshow. Though he doesn’t claim any rock n’ roll credentials, he does remember a New York in the 1970s that was a lot wilder. “Now the culture has transformed itself, but that was the norm at the time,” he said. Indeed, times have changed. When the guests return they’ll likely be more inclined to head to the High Line than to set a their mattress on fire.

Tom Stoelker