Perhaps no other New York City building has been so simultaneously charmed and haunted as the Chelsea Hotel. Most infamously, it was the place where Sex Pistol Sid Vicious stabbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in 1978. This wasn't the first death at the Chelsea, though. In the 1950s, poet Dylan Thomas died of drink and pneumonia while staying there. Twenty years later, Leonard Cohen would meet Janis Joplin at the hotel and they’d go on to write the song "Chelsea #2" in 1974. Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Madonna, Alice Cooper, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix, and Robert Crumb were among its notorious guest list.
In the summer of 2011, photographer Victoria Cohen heard that the Chelsea Hotel would undergo drastic renovations to the structure, which was built in 1884. She spent three weeks documenting every nook and cranny of the building and the result is Hotel Chelsea, a collection of photographs of the interior in its authentic, untouched state, as so many knew and loved it. "I could not imagine that the place that housed all that history would be gone. I felt the soul was literally being ripped out of the Chelsea," Cohen writes in the introduction to the book.
In the book, Cohen recalls the first time she entered the place, 25 years before her project: "I remember feeling as if I were in a Fellini movie. There was art everywhere—and also lots of rockers, models, freaks, and druggies…I saw a couple of drag queens using the telephone booths as changing rooms. To my right, I spied a drug deal being made in the doorway of the stairwell. Right behind me was a huge Larry Rivers painting. It was all so incredible."
Many people don't know that the Chelsea's knack for attracting artists wasn't coincidental. The architect, Philip Hubert, was brought up as a Socialist and was influenced by the philosophy of Charles Fourier, who believed in cooperative living and designed buildings called phalansteries, which operated similarly to communes. Hubert designed the Chelsea as a socialist utopian living space, with built-in artist studios, communal dining spaces, and even a hospital clinic.
Strangely, this place famous for bohemia, violence, creative catharsis, and celebrity appears benign in Cohen’s photographs. What is it about this plain white wall, box of tissues, and simple writing desk that helped inspire Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? The photographs spark questions about the power of place; the subtle influence of interior design on people’s minds.
It’s both a coffee table book and a historical document—an attempt at preserving the hotel’s original interior design when the tides of time set out to change it. The Chelsea’s renovation is part of a long list of recent revisions to the landscape of New York City, including the demolition of Long Island City graffiti haven Five Pointz, the painting-over of a beloved Keith Haring mural on Houston Street, and the closing of CBGB. These urban makeovers often feel like painful losses to longtime residents, nostalgic for the days before a hipster-fied L train. This book pays homage to that watershed time of punk and beatnik culture.
Hotel Chelsea is available for purchase from Pointed Leaf Press here.