At the stroke of midnight on July 31, 2011, the Hotel Chelsea, the outrageous, art-filled property that checked in legendary guests like Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol and Madonna, closed its doors for a renovation that was supposed to last one year, an estimate that proved wildly optimistic. Nearly seven years on, the 1885 Queen Anne brick pile remains closed and under construction for its latest transformation — into a luxury hotel with condos, the default for fabled landmarks from the Plaza to the Waldorf Astoria.
But in recent weeks the Chelsea has been in the news. After nearly 90 years of dishing up paella and sangria, El Quijote, the time-capsule Spanish restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor, closed on March 29 for renovations. (The plan is to reopen in six months, but how knows?)
The doors aren’t pretty, but that isn’t the point. Nearly half of them sport a celebrated provenance. There’s the door to the room once occupied by Bette Davis and Iggy Pop (not at the same time, obviously). Others led to rooms used by, among others, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Humphrey Bogart, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and, the ultimate Door, Jim Morrison.
As for the unattributed doors, they’re osmosis-steeped in the Chelsea mystique, the ineffable magic that lured generations of big league creatives and aspirants to New York’s premiere bohemian-chic flophouse. In Just Kids, Patti Smith summed up the appeal of the tiny room with pale blue walls and a chenille bedspread she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe: “We could have had a fair-sized railroad flat in the East Village for what we were paying. But to dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education.”
With a value not obvious to the naked eye, the doors were destined for the rubbish heap when demolition of the hotel’s interior began. Which brings us to their savvy savior Jim Georgiou. A long-time Hotel Chelsea resident, he was booted out for falling behind in his rent a few years back but continued to visit the hotel to use the restroom and even spent a month sleeping in the lobby, courtesy of a kind-hearted hotel staffer. Learning of the doors’ planned fate from construction workers, he waited for them to be dumped on the street and hauled them off to a storage facility.
”My first impulse was to preserve them because of how much the Chelsea meant to me,” Georgiou told Artnet News. “They remind me of the incredible life I had there, and of all the lives of the people who have called the Chelsea Hotel home, too.”
Goods in hand, Georgiou plunged into those lives, doing extensive research to match as many doors as he could with the notables who opened them. For several doors, he managed to track down as many as three celebrated users, like the Madonna-Isabella Rossellini-Shirley Clarke Door and the Bob Marley-Bob Dylan- Lee Jaffee Door.
The Chelsea was one-of-a-kind almost from the start. Designed as one of the city’s first co-op apartment buildings, the Chelsea became a hotel in 1906 and accomplished guests soon arrived, among them Mark Twain, O. Henry and several Titanic survivors. Bankrupt by 1939, the hotel was purchased by three partners. Just as Frank Case molded the Algonquin into a mecca for writers and Broadway actors, Joseph Gross, Julian Krauss and David Bard cultivated artists and authors, lured by the hotel’s generous rooms, abundant natural light and often agreeable terms. Indeed, a barter practice that allowed artists to hand over a painting or sculpture in lieu of rent transformed the Chelsea lobby into a first-rate art gallery.
As soon as the Chelsea stash went on view at Ricco/Maresca late last week, I stopped by for a look. With doors suspended at angles from the ceiling, it was part art installation, part maze, part funhouse. A poster provided a numbered check-list of celebrated associations, a reminder of why you’re looking for hints of magic in these battered, whitewashed doors.
You may even want to take one home. Bidding starts at $1,000 for an anonymous piece of Chelsea history and $5,000 for doors with a full-throttle provenance, numbers that are just guesses since there’s no obvious price precedent for Hotel Chelsea doors. But one thing is clear — I can’t imagine the doors of the new, multi-bazillion dollar Hotel Chelsea will ever cause a bidding frenzy.
A portion of the auction proceeds will benefit City Harvest.