Legends and Lore from the Chelsea Hotel in New York

The Hotel Chelsea, which everyone in New York calls the Chelsea Hotel or just The Chelsea, at 222 W. 23rd Street, is essential to New York lore, art history, literature, rock and roll, the Beats, the Punks, Popular culture, and Western Civilization. The Chelsea Hotel in New York is where it all went down. It used to, anyway.

Mark Twain stayed there. So did Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And Mick Jagger.

Jack Kerouac lived there. So did Arthur Miller and Jackson Pollock.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived there together, in the same room.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” there. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” there. Bob Dylan wrote songs there. Joni Mitchell and Bon Jovi wrote songs about it.

Andy Warhol filmed what would become the “Chelsea Girls” movie there.

Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there.

The Museum of Modern Art was conceived there.

The Grateful Dead played a concert on the roof there.

Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen to death there (probably).

In January of 2024 I was invited to visit by photographer Tony Notarberardino. He moved into the Chelsea Hotel in New York in 1994 and has lived there ever since. Two years after arriving, he began photographing the Hotel Chelsea residents and passers-through. I was there to discuss the project.

Notarberardino photographed the famous—Dee Dee Ramone and Debbie Harry—and the unknown—Elias Jose Reramos, the hotel garbage collector, and staff from the hotel’s El Quijote restaurant.

“They interested me as much as the famous people,” Notarberardino told me. “I never thought the portrait was any better because they were famous.”

Fame was never the point. Their connection to the Chelsea Hotel in New York was. Each one contributed something.

“You hear the classic stories about Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols, but there was a lot of interesting people staying here that never got any recognition, and some I photographed,” Notarberardino explained.

Many of Notarberardino photographs are sexually explicit in nature. Mirroring The Chelsea.

“There was a lot of crazy shit going on,” Notarberardino said, stating the obvious. “The first floor was like a flop house, there’d be prostitutes working out of here. When the whole Sex Pistols thing went down (1978), this was a dodgy place. Even when I moved in in the early 90s, people were like, ‘what are you doing living in the Chelsea Hotel?’ We had strip clubs around here. There was an S&M club two doors down.”

Even U.S. government spooks had a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

“Across the road, even when I moved in, there was still a communist bookshop on the first floor, and it was like one of the communist centers in New York. So back in the 60s, the CIA had a room, Stanley had given the CIA a room where they had surveillance constantly, stuff like that, it’s phenomenal.”

That’s all changed now.

History of Hotel Chelsea

Tony Notarberardino's Chelsea Hotel in New York bedroom.
Tony Notarberardino’s Chelsea Hotel in New York bedroom. Photo by Chadd Scott

Now a New York City landmark built in 1884, the Victorian Gothic building on West 23rd Street was one of the few remaining Bohemian refuges in a fast and ever-changing city. It played host to legendary artistic collaborations, boundary-breaking performances, and debauchery on a scale difficult to imagine.

It was established as something of a utopian commune where residents could share the costs of utilities and services. In exchange, they’d help perform upkeep on the building. Laborers, electricians, construction workers were therefore welcome. So, too, were artists. The arts and artists have always been a part of the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

That housing model went bankrupt in 1905. The property was converted into a luxury hotel. After World War II, it fell on hard times.

Increasingly showing its age, dilapidated, the Hotel Chelsea welcomed overnight guests as well as long-term renters and residents. Artists remained at the forefront. Poets, writers, musicians, painters.

“Time stood still in this place,” Notarberardino said. “It had its own schedule because a lot of people, being artists, would sleep all day, work and all night, so there’d be stuff going on here all the time. I’d find subjects at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning to photograph.”

Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Hotel Chelsea in New York became sketchier and sketchier, culminating with Spungen’s likely murder there in 1978. Vicious was charged with murder, but died months later of an overdose while awaiting trial. Not surprisingly, the Chelsea’s reputation never recovered. The 1980s were little better for the famed hotel. As Chelsea began gentrifying in the 1990s, the writing was on the wall.

Hotel operations ceased in 2011.

Chelsea Owners History

Tony Notarberardino photograph of Stanley Bard at the Chelsea Hotel.
Tony Notarberardino photograph of Stanley Bard at the Chelsea Hotel. © Tony Notarberardino.COURTESY THE ARTIST AND ACA GALLERIES, NEW YORK

The Chelsea is synonymous with the Bard Family. David Bard was part of a group who bought the hotel in 1943. David’s son Stanley took over management in the early 1970s.

Stanley Bard’s management was lax to say the least. Rent payments were worked out month-by-month, with Bard regularly accepting artwork in lieu of cash. Some residents paid this, others paid that. Some didn’t pay at all. Stanley’s favorites could go months, or years, at a time rent free.

“(Stanley) was the one that made it all. He was a smart; he got all the artists, writers, he’d basically take people that no one else would take,” Notarberardino said. “It was a smart move because that built the myth.”

The property’s condition continued to degrade under Stanley’s oversight however. By the late 1970s and 1980s, it was a seedy dive.

Stanley Bard was forced to sell the property against his will in 2007. The heirs of the others who his father bought the Chelsea Hotel in New York with forced the move. Subsequent owners undertook a massive, messy, contentious series renovations costing tens of millions of dollars and lasting over a decade.

Completed in 2022, the “new” Hotel Chelsea Savoy is a fancy Manhattan hotel with small rooms and expensive rates not unlike 100 others.

“(Before the renovation), it was more a Bohemian family, there was more interaction, a lot more tenants, so you felt more community,” Notarberardino said. “You don’t get that now because now it’s just a business. It’s corporate. There’s restaurants downstairs that are expensive, bars I can’t afford to drink in. Room service. Stuff we never imagined possible back in the day.”

Chelsea Hotel New York USA

Tony Notarberardino home and portrait camera setup inside Chelsea Hotel
Tony Notarberardino home and portrait camera setup inside Chelsea Hotel. Photo by Chadd Scot.

Notarberardino was in his early 30s when he came to New York and The Chelsea from Australia. He had a friend living there. The friend suggested he see if any rooms were available.

“212-243-3700, I’ll never forget it, it’s the number of the Chelsea,” Notarberardino remembers. “I called in from Sydney before I left and they (answered), ‘Chelsea Hotel.’ I thought I had the wrong number. I hung up and called back and I’m like, ‘I’m looking for so and so,’ and they sent me straight to his room. I’m like, ‘yo, man, what do you do in a hotel; how does that work?’ He’s like, ‘that’s a long story.’”

Notarberardino had heard of the Hotel Chelsea like everyone else, but didn’t come to New York intentionally to stay there.

“When I arrived, I got my own room and I thought, well, this is okay, because they’re offering long term, short term, overnight, I thought, well, I really don’t know where to go so I did a deal with Stanley Bard (who) gave me this room,” Notarberardino said. “This was the first room I walked into New York City and never left.”

That “deal” included $1100 a month for rent, “which I thought was expensive,” Notarberardino recalls. “It probably was. Fast forward and (rent) hasn’t really changed. This apartment anywhere in Chelsea (now) would be worth $5,000 for sure.”

Stanley Bard would accept art for rent and periodically let Notarberardino slide on payments allowing the freelance photographer to stay afloat. Andy Warhol gave Bard paintings to cover expenses of Factory members staying there. The hotel’s lobby and hallways today resemble an art gallery as a result.

“You need people like that. Stanley was really sympathetic to artists. He helped me out in the early days because I didn’t have any money. He wouldn’t hassle you (for rent) if you explained the situation,” Notarberardino said. “That helped me be able to stay here because otherwise I probably would’ve moved, and certainly, if I didn’t have this room, I wouldn’t be in New York. There’s no way. This is a magical place and it suits me.”

It was love at first sight.

“It completely changed my life,” he says of the apartment. “I just felt like I was home. Immediately. It was instant.”

The photographer has a classic, corner double unit. The spacious living room includes a fireplace and ceilings over 10-feet high. There’s a large bedroom with a big closet and even a small kitchen.

His home’s vintage wood floors are cracked with big chunks gone. Original 1880s woodwork surrounds the windows. It’s dark and ornate with rugs, candles, velvet, mannequin forms, a large Buddhist figure, and white cat occupying the space. Empty picture frames and old mirrors cover the walls. Carnival masks, books, a catch-all of antiques and eclectic bric-a-brac adorn every surface. The bedroom ceiling is painted cerulean blue with yellow and red starbursts.

Bossa nova and jazz play alongside popular music from the 20s through the 60s in the background. It’s a vibe.

The spectacular front door lets passersby know this isn’t one of the hotel rooms.

It was here, in the apartment’s hallway, where all the portraits in Notarberardino’s series – some 1,500 – were taken using a vintage 1960s Toyo-View 810GII camera. The old-timey kind that stands chest high on a tripod and produces 8×10 negatives.

“I had to talk them into coming into my room. You’re coming home at night, I’d see someone interesting sitting in the lobby – two, three in the morning – you go up to them and give them the, ‘hey, you want to come up to my apartment,’” Notarberardino said. “If you approach it the right way, and I found a way of doing that, I’d get a lot of ‘no’s,’ but I’d get some ‘yes’s’ too. Then, of course, the other tenants who I’d have to get to know because some people are private; some portraits took me 10 years to get.”

Hotel Chelsea Savoy

Chelsea Hotel in New York sign as seen from Tony Notarberardino's apartment
Chelsea Hotel in New York sign as seen from Tony Notarberardino’s apartment. Photo by Chadd Scott.

“(I) had a good 16 years of the original Chelsea Hotel managed by the Bard family,” Notarberardino said. “Then it was sold and went through two or three owners before finally settling on the renovation you see now. Each time they sold the hotel, each owner didn’t like what the previous owner did, so not only did we endure demolition once … it was like this ongoing nightmare to be honest. We didn’t think it was ever going to be finished.”

Visit the Hotel Chelsea Savoy today – looky loos are welcome to wander the lobby admiring the art collection and vintage staircase – and you’ll find Lobby Bar and Café Chelsea, both among the most fashionable in town. Both are designed to look original; neither are.

“As much as we long for the nostalgia, it’s nice living in the hotel now; it’s impressive,” Notarberardino admits. “I’m living in a 5-star hotel. Room service when I moved in, they gave you the number of the deli that would deliver 24-hours.”

El Quijote restaurant just off the lobby is original, but much smaller than it used to be. Lobby Bar took up much of the original footprint. The public is welcome to enjoy all three.

The Chelsea’s Bohemian feel is a thing of the past. Fleeting whiffs tingle the senses, but it’s a chic, corporate hotel. The upside is no one’s scoring heroin there or being carried out in a body bag.

The hotel mirrors how the entire city has cleaned up its act over the past half century.

“If you saw pictures of the West Side Highway in the 70s, it looked like a wasteland … like Beruit,” Notarberardino said. “It’s hard to imagine 42nd Street was a red-light district, now its Disneyland. It literally was, shows like ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and all of those were shot around there. A lot of the people living (in The Chelsea) would be frequenting that.”

The Chelsea’s painters, poets, drag queens and junkies have been mostly replaced by tourists. Notarberardino counts himself among the last of a century’s worth of creatives to take inspiration there.

“I guess I’m a part of that legacy now, but I never thought I would be,” he said. “That was never my intention. (The photographs are) just another body of artwork that came out of here.”

An astonishing volume of books and plays and songs and paintings and now photographs. All produced at The Chelsea, and in some ways, produced by The Chelsea.

“Where that came from, I didn’t know; I always thought that The Chelsea was on a vortex, some vortex that defied time,” Notarberardino guesses about the creativity inspired there. “You can certainly feel the energy. Such a creative energy. What this building contributed to the art world is phenomenal.”

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