Before Patti Smith, before Allen Ginsberg, before Thomas Wolfe, before O. Henry, the Chelsea Hotel was populated by 80 convivial families of various levels of wealth, brought together by an idealistic board partly inspired by a French philosopher so radical some thought him mad.
That was back at the turn of the century — the 20th century — which is where Sherill Tippins begins her engaging, readable history, "Inside the Dream Palace." It tells the story of the remarkable building, opened in 1884 on 23rd Street in New York City, and its legendary inhabitants, but it does something more, presenting an oft-overlooked current of American utopianism, one that was urban, creative and surprisingly long-lived.
At the beginning of it all was architect Philip Hubert, born in France and raised in America by followers of Charles Fourier, a 19th-century French advocate of communal living. Fourier outlined complex social structures that would create an egalitarian, artistic society — ideas that took hold with the Transcendentalists and other American utopians, until they learned that he encouraged free sex and regular orgies.
Hubert held onto Fourier's philosophy — the social, not sexual, elements — through his rise to become one of New York's most successful architects. He purchased the oversized property where he built the 175-foot-by-86 foot, 12-story Chelsea Assn. Building. It was the city's largest residential building, housing lower-class workers in small suites, artists within glass-walled studios on the ninth floor, and wealthy families with 3,000-square-foot, 12-room apartments. Hubert also designed places for them to mix: rooms for the ladies and men on the ground floor, a restaurant and a rooftop garden.
"There would be all types of New Yorkers," Tippins writes, "the dark- and the light-spirited, the shrewd and the innocent, the scarred and the pure."
So it was set in motion: A place built beautifully, designed to bridge class divisions and to value the arts. Hubert likely would not have imagined Andy Warhol holding court in the restaurant, Dylan Thomas stumbling drunkenly down the halls, composer George Kleinsinger's room transformed into a literal jungle with exotic plants, birds and snakes, or filmmaker Shirley Clark's video experiments in the rooftop pyramid, originally built for convalescing residents — but what he created was big enough to house them all and so many more.
Tippins' first book was "February House," about a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that simultaneously housed W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and Paul and Jane Bowles. She's clearly interested in how places and creative people intersect; here, that locus of creative energy survived for more than 125 years.
It's what experimental filmmaker Harry Smith — the brilliant, eccentric and chronically broke self-taught musicologist, religious philosopher and longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel — would call "thought-forms." Tippins, who slips easily in and out of the perspectives of dozens of the narrative's main players to tell the story, describes the idea this way: "all thoughts emit energy in the form of atmospheric vibrations.... when strong enough, 'thought-forms' can latch on to receptive individuals and influence their thoughts. The clearer and stronger the thought, the more durable and far-reaching the thought-form."
As goofy as this sounds, it seems to apply to the Chelsea, which was converted from apartments to a residential hotel in 1905; divided from 80 to 300-plus units during the Depression. It was later sold to Hungarian émigrés and managed by a father then son, all while fostering an environment uniquely warm to idealists, socialists and artists bent on changing the world — or at least their corner of it.
Some of the people who lived or rested their heads at the Chelsea Hotel included artists Larry Rivers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Mapplethorpe; American Communist Party leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; writers Edgar Lee Masters, William S. Burroughs, Brendan Behan, Terry Southern and Jack Kerouac;
writers Edgar Lee Masters, William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern and Jack Kerouac; prankster Abbie Hoffman; film pioneers Shirley Clarke and Jonas Mekas; musicians Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, John Cale, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and the Grateful Dead. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson lived there nearly 50 years. Choreographer Katherine Dunham was booted out after bringing a pair of lions upstairs for dance rehearsal. Arthur C. Clarke wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" there.
But for all that creative energy, there was also the darkness. Valerie Solanas hung around the Chelsea lobby before marching off to shoot Warhol. There were suicides and overdoses. The nadir came in 1978, when Nancy Spungen died of a stab wound in a first-floor room, her boyfriend Sid Vicious arrested for murder. By then the building — like much of New York City — was in a state of steep decline, not enough money, facilities falling apart, drug dealers and pimps roaming the halls.
Taking her cue from Arthur Miller's reminiscences of his time at the hotel, Tippins finds some fault with a midcentury split of art from politics. Once, communal values seemed to be key to the work created at the Chelsea, exemplified by writer Wolfe and painter John Sloane. But a new generation of artists turned inward, making art individual, a change led by Jackson Pollock. Pollock, of course, has a Chelsea story too: When Peggy Guggenheim threw a luncheon there in his honor, instead of wooing collectors, he drunkenly vomited all over the carpet.
Yet it is the outrageous stories of the Chelsea that make it so appealing. The drunken mishaps, the acid-laden philosophies, the unusual couplings. The Chelsea's misfit artists, charming decay and low-rent opportunities are out of step with contemporary New York, and in 2007 the longtime manager was pushed out by directors who wanted to sell. The buyer, after years of stalled renovations that seemed designed to drive out longtime residents (who won a suit against his company), transferred the property into new hands in fall 2013. New owner King & Grove promises kinder, gentler renovations and a commitment to keeping the property "artsy" — but the utopian "thought-forms" of architect Hubert may have run out.
Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 480 pp., $30
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