The first thing you notice when you walk into the Chelsea Hotel is not the plump legs of Renate Goebel’s pink papier-mâché lady on a swing dangling overhead. It is not the large man in stained painter pants, hair spun into a white topknot, bristling with artistic importance as he collects a stack of mail from the front desk, or the girl in a plumed hat trying to retain the attention of the androgynous young man in a bathrobe. All the “guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses, junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors” that Patti Smith wrote about in her memoir Just Kids are still here, or at least people who look like them. But this tableau is not what first captured the attention of the blonde tourist who wheeled her suitcase into the lobby recently. “Zöeik hietté fflåge?” she murmured to her companion, or something that sounded like Swedish for “Good lord, what is that smell?”
A man in an armchair next to the fireplace smiled knowingly. Ah, yes. Years of hard living and indulgence have imbued the fat pink hotel at 23rd and Seventh with its own special cologne, a musty, grandparentish odor, with hints of urinal cake, and garlic from El Quijote next door, occasionally cut with gusts of Chanel perfume and pot smoke. “The smell of creativity, decay, and decadence,” says one resident. It may not be the best smell, but to the artists, musicians, and assorted dilettantes occupying the 101 units that are rented by the month instead of by the night, it’s the smell of home.
But maybe not for long. Since the hotel went up for sale in October, elevator banter has turned from who Susanne Bartsch or Larry Gagosian are literally and metaphorically screwing to much more serious questions about the future. “The suits were here again,” the bellhops inform one another in ominous tones. There was a group wearing yarmulkes, it has been said, and a group in turbans. “I heard André Balazs and what’s-his-name, the guy who did Studio 54, were here,” whispers Linda Troeller, a redheaded photographer and former model in her sixties who lives in a tiny room on the ninth floor. Others float alternate theories. “I think maybe a crazy guy from, let us say, Texas, who is a millionaire or billionaire, who wants fun,” says the artist George Chemeche, tugging his Santa Claus beard. “He doesn’t care if he loses money, just to have this as a toy for him. He can come here in jeans and mingle with the artists.”
Photographer Tony Notarberardino, who has compiled a book of portraits of some of the hotel’s more colorful guests over the past decade (including a dwarf stripper and a priest who has since moved to the Vatican), recoils at the mention of the previous day’s report in “Page Six” that TriStar Capital’s David Edelstein, whose credits include the W Hotel in South Beach, is considering taking the building condo. “That,” he gulps, “would be disastrous.”
April Barton, the brassy proprietor of the salon Suite 303, exhibits the more entitled attitude common to those who inhabit rent-stabilized apartments. “You’re here at the Chelsea Hotel—you’re untouchable,” she says, briskly snipping a chunk of hair off a patron’s head. “The rules and regulations in the rest of the world don’t apply.” Still, at this point, she snips, “I need to know answers. I want to know what the fuck is going on.”
What is going on is that New York City’s top Realtors and hoteliers are deep in the throes of bidding over who will become crowned owner of, and thus savior of, or destroyer of, depending on how you look at it, the Chelsea. It’s not every day that a building with this kind of legacy and location comes on the market. Over its 128-year history, it has had just three sets of owners: the original families who built it as one of New York’s first co-ops; the hotelier who took it over in 1905 after the co-op went bankrupt; and the three families, the Grosses, the Krausses, and the Bards, who bought it out of foreclosure in 1942, after which it went on to become one of the most freewheeling residential hotels in the city. Amazingly, the party lasted all the way until 2007, when the hotel’s board, made up of descendants of the investors, orchestrated a coup to oust the longtime manager Stanley Bard, perhaps because in the 50 years he’d run the place, he’d deprived them of profits by, among other things, being a little too kind to the creative types he’d favored as tenants. (He was known for accepting paintings in lieu of rent.) A period of uncertainty followed, culminating in the board’s announcement in October 2010 that it was putting the building up for sale.