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Going Condo or Getting Boutiqued?

The Contenders: André Balazs (left), Ian Schrager (right).  

The price is high—between $70 million and $80 million—especially for a creaky old building that everyone agrees needs a major renovation and that, at the moment, is half-occupied by residents, not hotel guests. But naturally, this hasn’t put off those big-name hotel developers who like to collect pieces of New York’s skyline. “This is an epic, epic opportunity, and operators are super-psyched about it,” says Steven Kamali, a hospitality and real-­estate consultant. “It would be like buying the Mercer Hotel twenty years ago.” People involved in the bidding are remaining mostly tight-lipped, but according to a number of sources, the board, which has been looking at proposals for months, has narrowed down the list of interested parties to a handful of front-runners, including Edelstein, Ian Schrager, and André ­Balazs, who has teamed up with his Mercer partners Richard Born and Ira Drukier, both of BD Hotels. Which means the building could turn into anything from condos filled with yuppies to a destination for Russian billionaires and their trophy wives. Most residents, not surprisingly, are rooting for a dark-horse candidate: David Bard, Stanley’s son, who has entered the bidding with the backing of a group of investors and who, they hope, will carry on his father’s legacy.

A lot of New Yorkers collect art, but Stanley Bard collected artists. The hotel “was his creation, it was his show,” says Abel Ferrara, who made a documentary in the aftermath of his ouster, Chelsea on the Rocks. “He directed it. He decided who was going to be there, who stayed.”

There were plenty of residence hotels in the city back in the sixties and seventies—among them the Gramercy Park Hotel, the Jane West, and the Breslin—but none were managed by someone as well known or liked as Bard. Over the years, the people he accepted as tenants, often using his unique method of calculating rent (“How much do your paintings sell for? How many do you sell a year?”), came to form a kind of family—or maybe more like a cult, since the people who lived in the hotel slept together as often as they celebrated holidays together. “I saved Stanley’s marriage,” says David Remfry, a British painter, by asking Bard if he and his wife wanted to pose for a series of watercolors he was doing of dancers. “Well, I would,” Bard said glumly. “But Phyllis has moved out.”

Somehow she agreed, and for a year they showed up every Friday at 9 A.M. “I put on Frank Sinatra, and they would dance for an hour,” says Remfry. “They would be in tears. It was as if I wasn’t there. And over the course of that year they got back together.”

Bard wasn’t the best manager (“The place was held together with Scotch tape,” says one resident), but that wasn’t the point. The Stanley years were “fun, certainly,” says Nicola L., a performance artist. “You had Viva running naked down the hallway with her husband chasing after her. The pimp on the first floor …”

“He wore these elaborate hats, and you’d see his girls following to the gym, like ducklings,” adds Chemeche, whose daughter Amanda recalls being pelted with quarters by Dee Dee Ramone, cackling in a red commedia dell’arte mask, on Halloween Night.

It’s unlikely the new owners will indulge the same kind of anarchic, artistic community. “With the Bards, you always had the feeling they were behind you,” says Troeller. “Is André Balazs going to be behind anybody?” The marketing materials that describe the Chelsea’s sale darkly advertise the opportunity to “increase the key count,” even though in the last few years many of the renters who were vulnerable to ordinary pressure have already left—some agreeing to give up their rooms in exchange for the forgiveness of rent they owed. The more established tenants, the ones who had the foresight to negotiate solid leases, are digging in their heels. “Big problem is, I will never leave here, even if they give me $10 million,” says Chemeche, gesturing to his fourth-floor apartment, an Architectural Digest–worthy loft made up of what was once three hotel rooms. “I don’t need the money; I like the place. I lived here 40 years. My daughter is in college, and she will take it over if one day I close my eyes.”

The question is whether old-timers like Chemeche will be able to tolerate the building once it ends up in the hands of a high-end developer whose vision includes ambient lobby music or Jimi Hendrix guitars in glass cases. All of the potential buyers, particularly Balazs, are taken with the rooftop terrace, which they envisage as a fine addition to the city’s bar scene. “He’d keep it looking old,” says a source close to Balazs, but that’s probably cold comfort to the very private residents of the penthouse on the roof, who are unlikely to be happy about the idea of socialites swilling specialty cocktails outside their windows.

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