Dracula's Cousin: A Typical Evening at the Chelsea Hotel
Welcome back to Out of the Archives and into the Streets, the Archive on Parade blog.
Tonight, Archive on Parade is debuting Talks and Turntables a brand new lecture-series-turned-dance-party. This month's talks are organized around the theme "New York at Night." In honor of the event, this post features one of the city's greatest magnets for denizens of the New York Night, the Chelsea Hotel. You can find municipal documents, floor plans, press clippings and other ephemera related to The Chelsea in the George B. Corsa Hotel Files at the New York Historical Society.
The Chelsea Hotel achieved official landmark status from the city of
New York in March 1966, but was iconic way before that. The shabby-chic abode at 222 West 23rd Street reigned for over a century as the legendary home of artists and writers from Mark Twain to Janis Joplin. It was here that Andy Warhol made Chelsea Girls, Robert Mappelthorpe photographed Patti Smith, Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall, Arthur C. Clarke produced 2001 - A Space Odyssey, William Burroughs penned Naked Lunch, and Dylan Thomas went gentle into that good night.
Describing the melange of residents and transients living at the Chelsea in 1967, the New York Times included "painters, sculptors, writers, poets, scholars, widows and pensioners, sea captains, ex-boxers, fashion designers, folk singers, rock 'n' roll groups, old Village bohemians, hippie runaways, school teachers, subway engineers, the founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), foreign intelligentsia, Iron Curtain poets, and not the little old lady from Dubuque (who stays at the Algonquin)." The Chelsea catered to such an eclectic crew that residents fondly described it as "a cross between The Plaza and The Port Authority Bus Terminal."
Or, more appropriately, the arrivals gate at Transylvania Airport. The poet and biographer Ulick O'Connor was standing at reception one evening when he was introduced to Count Roderick Gheka, the son of the Crown prince of Romania, and a direct descendent of Count Vlad, best known as Dracula. O'Connor told The New York Times, "'the funny thing was, when I talked to him, I found out his mother was Maureen O'Connor, a distant relative of my father.'" Citing this episode of madcap genealogy, O'Connor captured the the zeitgeist of the Hotel: "The Chelsea Hotel is the only place in the world where you can meet Dracula's Cousin and he turns out to be your cousin, too."
But before the hotel became a paradise for artists and assorted
vampires, the building itself made a towering impression on New York. When it opened in 1883, the Chelsea's 11 stories made it the tallest building in the city, a designation it held until it was eclipsed by the Flat Iron Building in 1902. Inside, the hotel boasted one of the city's first penthouses, some of its first duplex apartments, and was one of the first co-ops.
Taking into account both its architectural quality and cultural primacy, the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that "the Hotel Chelsea has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.”
But many hotels are architecturally outstanding, and artists will bring a certain aesthetic wherever they go (Salvador Dali lived at the St. Regis with a pet leopard and a cloak of dead bees.) What made the Chelsea so synonymous with eccentricity and so conducive to creativity?
Perhaps it was the Bard in charge. I don't mean that Shakespeare hung
out in the lobby. Instead, David Bard took over management of the hotel in 1947, and was succeeded by his son, Stanley, who ran the place from 1964-2007.
Stanley Bard was a patron of the arts. He actively cultivated the Hotel's reputation as an urban artists colony, and proudly told the New York Times in 1983 that "there's not another building in the world that caters to this many creative people. There's some mystique within these walls that helps people produce art." When residents could produce art but not rent, they simply hung their pieces on the walls to cover the tab.
In this way, Bard provided a home for both the down-and-out, and the up-and-coming. Throughout his tenure, he wanted "to keep the atmosphere kooky but nice, eccentric but beautiful." Just like the city itself.