Going Condo or Getting Boutiqued?

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.

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.

Then again, they may not even get to see that. “Everyone who lives there is going to have a very limited ability to continue to do so,” says a person familiar with the bidding.

Nemo Librizzi, an artist who consulted on atmospherics for the Hotel on Rivington, doesn’t think he’ll have as hard a time with the new ownership as some of the others in the building. “I guess I’m privileged to be in that group of the kind of desirable bohemians,” he says. He and his wife, Kacey, took over their studio on the fifth floor from his father, who now lives downstairs in an apartment that contains half the room where Sid Vicious allegedly killed Nancy Spungen, and the couple keeps company with their upstairs neighbors Lola Schnabel and René Ricard. “But what they don’t realize is that all the parts mean something, and some of the people you think are random crazy people are the ones that the artists like to talk to and get that vibe from.”

According to many of the residents, Stanley and David Bard are the only people who understand this alchemy, which is why they’ve waged a boisterous campaign to bring his family back. In the aftermath of Stanley’s ouster, banners reading bring back the bards were stretched across one of the hotel’s balconies, and Ed Hamilton, one of the resident activists, edits a blog, Living With Legends, which gleefully chronicled the foibles of each of the managers the board had installed since Stanley. First there was 26-year-old Glennon Travis from BD Hotels, a “douchebag” whose memos to residents Hamilton mercilessly mocked. Andrew Tilley, a former Hard Rock Hotel manager, lasted less than a year, saying he’d “had enough” after residents allegedly pulled pranks like sending his wife underwear and signing him up for dozens of magazine subscriptions. At an art opening in the hotel’s ballroom, one resident confronted shareholder and hotel vice-president David Elder, bizarrely wearing a mask of Elder’s face.

“They’re a very colorful group,” says BD Hotel’s Born, adding that he’ll bear no grudges if he ends up with the building. “If we are the winning bidders, I’m sure the tenants will be welcome to stay and enjoy it. I’m sure they’ll be very dynamically involved in the process. The idea is to keep the spirit of the building. The intention is not to make the Chelsea anything other than what it is.”

It is certainly true that changes at the Chelsea don’t have a history of panning out. In 2009, for instance, Elder gave David Komurek, a brand consultant with a statement mustache, a lease on a one-bedroom suite in exchange for some rebranding help. Komurek had lots of ideas: He took Elder to the Ace Hotel, where a one-bedroom suite can go for nearly $1,000 a night, and urged the Chelsea to increase its rates. He suggested brand partnerships with people like Andy Spade and Matt Abramcyk from Smith & Mills. But “nothing ever came of it,” Komurek shrugs. Now he finds himself in the same boat as the other residents: waiting to see what happens next.

The Bard acolytes are convinced that if David Bard emerges the victor, many of the building’s problems, including multiple tenant lawsuits, will disappear. “If David Bard were to come here, he could resolve everything with a telephone call,” says Scott Griffin, a theatrical producer. “It’s not like he has some magical power. It’s called experience.” But the pro-Bard faction may be indulging in magical thinking, hoping that Bard will not just go “back to the way things were,” as Notarberardino puts it, but restore the hotel to the ideal state that everyone seems to remember but never actually was: a bohemian Shangri-La where no one ever ages or OD’s or gets a rent increase. With improved light fixtures.

The decision as to who will end up owning the Chelsea could, according to people close to the deal, be made in a matter of days, and should David Bard lose, residents might consider taking advice from Victor Hernandez, who must be the most self-reflective bellhop with a chinstrap beard the world has ever known. “The worries about change, it’s just a feeling of fear,” he says. “You can’t stay in the same place forever. You have to move on.”

In the meantime, stasis. A few days ago, Komurek’s friend Kelsey Margerison, a swimsuit model and artist from California, escorted her next-door neighbor Bettina Grossman, an octogenarian printmaker in sunglasses and with a long mop of graying hair, up to the sixth floor; Grossman had spotted a rabbi with a long white beard, and she needed to meet him. “I’m a special person,” she explained earnestly. “And he is a special person. I can tell.”

But at the sixth floor, the elevator door opened instead to the model Kristen ­McMenamy, who was being photographed in a topless bathing suit by Steven Meisel for Italian Vogue. The walkie-talkie-toting scrum of assistants looked stricken at the interruption. “Can you move over here a little?” one tense-looking man asked Grossman, who was standing in full view of the camera, ignoring him completely. “Can you just …”

“She’s looking for a rabbi,” explained Margerison, somewhat helplessly. “Have you seen a rabbi? With a long white beard?”

He winced. “No, but can you just move …” Apparently, Meisel was in a Mood.

“Bettina, I think we have to move,” Margerison urged. Grossman moved toward a doorway, and the assistant looked agonized at the number of seconds it took.

Grossman peered into the room, which was being cleaned by maids.

“I think he was there,” she said, loudly. The assistant fidgeted.

“I think we’re getting kicked out, Bettina,” Kelsey said, gently.

It didn’t take her long to shuffle to the door. Clearly, on this floor, the special people were gone.

See Also:
Slideshow: The Hotel Chelsea Residents Reflect on Their Fate

Going Condo or Getting Boutiqued?