NEW YORK — The Chelsea Hotel had a beleaguered look. A tenant had draped several banners across the legendary establishment’s red brick facade: “Stanley Bard is my hero,” one banner proclaimed.
The signs referred to the hotel’s part-owner and longtime manager who was forced out last year. Since then, the other owners have fought bitterly with the permanent residents over the future of the famed hotel on West 23rd Street — a battle that residents say is a fight for the hotel’s soul.
In a city where gentrification continually lays claim to new neighborhoods, where flophouses in the Bowery have been replaced with upscale glass-and-steel towers, the Chelsea is a holdout.
The 125-year-old hotel is home to a motley crew of painters, musicians, writers and other self-described bohemians. Like many of its inhabitants, the Chelsea looks as if it has had a long, eventful life. Both the facade and the interior look slightly worn, and living here presents some discomforts. Not all rooms have private bathrooms or real kitchens, for example.
But few residents want the place to get a substantial face-lift. The Chelsea has always been a bulwark against conformity.
“This hotel does not belong to America,” wrote playwright and onetime resident Arthur Miller. “There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame.”
In these rooms, Leonard Cohen met Janis Joplin on an unmade bed. Bob Dylan stayed up for days, longing for his estranged wife. Both men memorialized the hotel in song. In one room, Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and in another Arthur C. Clarke penned “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The poet Dylan Thomas spent his last days at the hotel before a drinking binge finished him off in 1953. And 25 years later, the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious was charged with stabbing girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death in their room at the hotel.
For four decades, Stanley Bard, 73, worked as the hotel’s manager and cheerleader. The hotel, he thought, was a community of like-minded souls more than a business. His father and two partners had bought the hotel in 1939, and Bard began working there in the 1950s.
Eventually, Bard wanted his own son, David, to take over the management. But last year, a dispute left the heirs of the other partners, Marlene Krauss and David Elder, in control.
“I was never able to convince the other board members of my philosophy about the hotel,” Bard said. “The Chelsea is a very special kind of place — its clientele, its history, its heritage, its belief system, its integrity.”
Last June, Krauss and Elder hired BD Hotels NY to manage and renovate the hotel. After forcing Bard out, the company began putting pressure on long-term tenants, getting rid of at least 15 people in less than a year, according to court papers and people at the hotel.
The tenants feared that Krauss and Elder wanted to transform the Chelsea into a boutique hotel, and, although they never saw any plans, they worried that character would be sacrificed in favor of a spa and rooftop bar. They fought back, suing the owners over rent stabilization and demanding the return of the Bards.
For reasons they didn’t want to disclose, Elder and Krauss eventually grew disenchanted with BD Hotels, and the company was fired this month.
The tenants took this as a victory in a long-running conflict. And although Bard feels vindicated, he still worries about the future of the Chelsea, which is currently operating without a manager.
“It doesn’t come by chance, all of this,” he said, referring to the ambience of the hotel.
“It takes a lot of nurturing. I spent a lifetime trying to create that. I wouldn’t like to see that lost.”
Elder said that neither he nor Krauss would comment, and the two have not indicated what they plan to do next.
Arthur Nash, a 35-year-old freelance curator who created the banners on the facade, said: “We’ve been duking it out with the new management since Stanley was thrown out the door.”
Nash, who lives on the second floor, added: “I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
On a recent afternoon, his tiny apartment was crammed with material for “Infernal Machine,” an exhibit about capital punishment that Nash is preparing. A couple of tabby cats lounged on his bed, and a black bicycle was parked near the door. Downstairs in the lobby, the front-desk clerk — a young man named Juan in a dark suit — juggled the demands of residents and tourists, cordially greeting an older tenant, then summoning a mop when a young tourist spilled soda on the marble floor. A sculpture hung from the ceiling, overlooking visitors, and paintings and a faux fireplace decorated the canary-yellow walls.
“You need a place like this for struggling artists. It’s what gives New York its edge,” said Ed Hamilton, 47, whose beige khakis and blue-and-white-striped shirt hardly qualified as edgy or bohemian.
Hamilton arrived at the Chelsea in 1995, a writer from Kentucky drawn to New York by the hotel’s literary pedigree and “counterculture vibe,” he said. At the time, he was suffering from writer’s block, but, he said, the moment he walked through the door, it disappeared. During the next 12 years, Hamilton wrote in his 100-square-foot room as other residents died or disappeared and the hotel changed around him.
In the hallway bathroom outside his room, a photocopied photograph of an older man with caked white makeup hung in a golden frame above the toilet. It was Herbert Huncke, a hustler, drug addict and Beat Generation muse who spent his last year at the hotel, dying there in 1996. For years afterward, Hamilton had to shoo away Huncke’s junkie buddies who came to shoot up in the bathroom. Over time, they disappeared.
Now the greatest nuisance for Hamilton is replacing the picture of Huncke every time a tourist steals it.
Hamilton chronicles the hotel’s past and present at www.hotelchelseablog.com, and his book about the hotel, “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel,” was published last year. A blend of fiction and nonfiction, the book includes such sections as “Con Games,” “Declining Fortunes” and “Ghosts and Other Abominations.”
In the last story of the book, Hamilton describes how Hiroya, a Japanese painter, left several works of art at the hotel when he died a few years ago. One of Hiroya’s paintings hangs in the stairwell between the seventh and eighth floors. A line of Japanese text scrawled on the canvas roughly translates as, “From here, it’s heaven.”