Hotel Chelsea: Photographs by Victoria Cohen

No two rooms in the Chelsea Hotel look anything alike. The furniture is a far-flung collection of different eras, and each bed, table, dresser, and rug looks old enough to have been made right here in the USA, no particle board desks to be seen. We might as well call it “Garage Sale Gothic” and if the furniture were in better condition, they would all be museum pieces.

Hotel Chelsea is one of many books on the Chelsea Hotel, but it focuses on the décor rather than the people. This is not going to be a typical Martha Stewart style book, because the furniture is randomly placed and the paint schemes are all different. What makes this book great is that it isn’t stylish at all; this is exactly how the average New Yorker would decorate an apartment. Few of us can afford fancy furniture and rugs, so we have to buy what we can. My father, who spent the 70’s trapped in a small NYC apartment, used to take old furniture right off the street and refinish it. He told me hilarious stories about bringing home an old bureau from the sidewalk and vacuuming out all the dead cockroaches. The only thing louder than the vacuum was my mother’s screams. I hope he didn’t bring in any furniture with old syringes, because after all, this was the same New York City of Taxi Driver, Death Wish, and Looking For Mister Goodbar.

Victoria Cohen photographs the many rooms, some with beautiful furniture, some with cheap-looking 80’s accessories. Most of the rooms are well-maintained, however, so I can assure you this is not a welfare hotel. The owners tried to match the furniture to the look of the room, such as a red leather armchair in front of a red wall. Room 617 has old nasty wallpaper, contrasting with the recently repainted white molding. One room has a flowery old divan next to a lace curtain, while another has a small scratched-up desk and ugly red curtains. When I saw this room, I was reminded of Joe Buck’s fleabag room in Midnight Cowboy, before he gets locked out for not paying rent. I wonder if the average out-of-town transient would’ve been put off by the curtains, or felt right at home? Depending on his situation, it would probably not have been much different from mom & dad’s tract house.

Cohen is a New York based photographer, and like anyone enamored with the city, has a fascination with the Chelsea Hotel (or Hotel Chelsea, if you prefer.) She was not happy to hear the sad new in 2011, that it was closing down to be renovated, and all the charm and history would be gone. This was the same place where Arthur C. Clarke began 2001 A Space Odyssey, where William S. Buroughs wrote Naked Lunch, where Leonard Cohen met Janis Joplin, and where Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend. The last one we could do without, but what about the rest? Doesn’t this hotel anchor a lot of the city’s history? It certainly took in a lot of the people that were not especially welcome among the Eloise crowd at the Plaza Hotel. You wouldn’t see a lot of kids in this hotel, except for Gabby Hoffman, who lived here until age 11. In describing the hotel where she grew up, she says it was a great place to be, like every day was an adventure. Like most of us, she wasn’t happy to see it closed off and full of construction dust.

Maybe this book about the Chelsea’s décor is the antithesis to the hotel business? It was never a choice lodging for affluent visitors, so it was popular with writers, artists, and people with less money to spend. After WWII, the owner took artwork in place of rent, so his art collection was probably worth as much as the hotel. My fault with this book is that it leaves out all the artwork in the hotel that made it one big gallery. I wish the photographer had included some in the book, but you can still see it in other books about the hotel. Cohen does make it clear, however, that she was interested in the individual hotel rooms, not the residential apartments. The long-term residents could decorate how they liked and throw parties, but the short-term renters weren’t there for fame; they came to “drop off the radar” and be anonymous. Kind of like E.B. White describes in his book Here Is New York, it’s a city of anonymity.

Oscar Wilde, on the last night of his life, wrote “either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” He was referring to the hideous wall paper of his room in Paris, where he retreated as an anonymous expatriate. While Oscar Wilde’s widely-celebrated last words are seen as those of a genius critic, I’d rather see old décor celebrated. The average bohemian, living in austere circumstances, should celebrate the cheap décor as part of the adventure.

A good title for this book would be “Chelsea Hotel: Ode to An Old Dresser.”


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