Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

Times-a-changing at Hotel Chelsea

For more than 120 years the legendary Hotel Chelsea on Manhattan's 23rd street has been home to great thinkers and bad behaviour. But this may soon change, and there are fears the Chelsea might become another trendy boutique hotel, like the one David Willis stayed in at the beginning of his most recent trip to New York.

Maybe it was the red-eye flight which left me cranky as a bear with a sore paw. I had stayed there before, at the trendiest hotel in midtown Manhattan, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Hotel Chelsea
The red-brick building that houses the Hotel Chelsea was built in 1883
This time the further I got up the lime-green escalator that leads to reception, the deeper my heart sank. Setting foot in the cavernous lobby, with its hipster-chic Alice in Wonderland decor and techno soundtrack, my mood was darker than the dimly lit surroundings.

One of the effects of middle age is that the things which once seemed funky and fun suddenly start to seem faintly ridiculous. The glass-floored bar with its acid-yellow lighting and ludicrously overpriced cocktails had seemed the perfect place to carouse, the intimate bedrooms with their minimalist decor an ideal setting for seduction.

But finding that my suitcase commandeered the entire room and that I could lie on the bed and touch all four walls at once it was clear, I am too old to be trendy.

"You're lucky," said the GQ magazine-model bellman when I muttered that I could not swing a cat in the place. "This is one of our bigger rooms."

Temple of trendiness

A few years ago I would have happily endured that punishment cell knowing that I was in one of the hippest corners of the universe. Now it was not just the squealing of beautiful people from the bar below that was keeping me awake at night, but the very real possibility of falling out of bed and getting my head stuck in the toilet.

I took to wandering the corridors, marvelling at the murals and the exotic smells emanating from the rooms. I became enthralled by the building's history and the larger-than-life cast of characters who once called the Chelsea home

The place was fine if your idea of fun is living in a music video, not so great if you are in the mood for a good book and an early night.

And so it was, after four sleepless nights at this temple of trendiness, that I found myself hauling my luggage across the threshold of the Hotel Chelsea. Through a lobby festooned with vividly colourful works of art, to a black Formica reception desk where an old man stood with his back to a rack of pigeon-holes, one for each room.

Judging by the characters milling around, the guests were about as derelict and dishevelled as their surroundings.

The old man told me that I was in luck. A standard room was available, which meant I would not have to share a shower!

He introduced me to Angel, a wiry Latino bellman who led me into a cramped lift and down an eerie corridor reminiscent of a mental institution. I had just started to think that moving hotels might have been a terrible mistake when Angel threw open the door to room 430 and we were blinded by sunlight from two large, south-facing windows.

The room contained an original fireplace, a collection of endearingly mismatched furniture and a cosy double bed. More importantly you could land a small plane in there. I felt instantly at home.

Celebrity clientele

Angel explained that had I come a week earlier I would not have got a room. The place was chock-a-block with punk rockers marking the death of Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Hotel Chelsea
The hotel's reception desk has changed little over the years

She died in room 100, since re-numbered, and now occupied by a concert pianist.

Over the course of the next week I took to wandering the corridors, marvelling at the murals and the exotic smells emanating from the rooms. I became enthralled by the building's history and the larger-than-life cast of characters who once called the Chelsea home.

Jimi Hendrix lived and loved there, as did Leonard Cohen (with Janis Joplin). Dylan Thomas drank 18 straight whiskeys and lapsed into a coma. Beat poets Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac engaged in philosophical exchange, and Andy Warhol so loved the place that he made a film about it.

But rich as the Chelsea's reputation for bohemianism and bad behaviour may be, it could soon be a thing of the past.


Andrew Tilley is a Londoner with what some may see an unenviable task on his hands.

Hotel Chelsea
The hotel has collected works by many of the artists who have stayed there

A snappily dressed man who wouldn't look out of place at the hotel that I had just left, he was brought in a couple of months ago to replace the previous manager who had been running the Chelsea for more than 40 years.

Charged with dragging the place kicking and screaming into the 21st century, he had inherited a mountain of debt from guests who had fallen behind on their rent, and a potential mutiny on the part of long-term residents who regard the Chelsea as home.

He says his plan is to preserve the heart and soul while at the same time renovating and repairing the legendary shabbiness.

The future, he told me, lies in flat-screen televisions, in-house movies, mini-bars, and iPod docking stations.

The days of residents donating artwork in lieu of rent will go the way of the dinosaurs it seems. Bad behaviour will simply be tolerated, not encouraged.

Lugging my bags back across the threshold I thought the concept sounded horribly familiar.

By the time I return to New York the surroundings may be pretty similar, no matter where I choose to lay my head.

Poor Sid and Nancy, they must be turning in their graves.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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