S2, E12: Ghosts, Celebs, and Rock ’n’ Roll: A History of NYC’s Hotel Chelsea

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we’re debuting “If These Walls Could Talk,” which shares the secrets behind iconic hotels, beginning with New York City’s legendary Hotel Chelsea.

How does the hotel that attracted luminaries like Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and Sid Vicious undergo a renovation without losing its gritty, celeb-packed history? In this week’s episode of Unpacked, we’re debuting “If These Walls Could Talk,” which shares the secrets behind iconic hotels, beginning with New York City’s legendary Hotel Chelsea. AFAR’s hotel editor Jennifer Flowers takes us behind the scenes, where ghosts, celebrities, and charismatic residents lurk.


Jennifer Flowers, host: I’m Jennifer Flowers, AFAR’s senior deputy editor and resident hotel expert. This is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. Welcome to our first episode of “If These Walls Could Talk,” a miniseries that explores the stories—and secrets—hotels can tell about the places we visit.

Today we’re touring the Hotel Chelsea—also known as the Chelsea Hotel—one of the most storied lodgings in all of New York City.

As a seasoned New Yorker, I’ve had a longtime fascination with the Chelsea. It started not long after I first moved to New York City in the early aughts. My friend Heather, a music blogger, was in town from Colorado. She dragged me to a rundown hotel in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Music legends like Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Jimi Hendrix all hung out here. Sometimes, they even used the hotel as their muse. After that first visit, I began to learn about what made the Chelsea such a unique place.

The hotel was built in 1884 and it’s been both a home and a playground for all kinds of creatives over the last century. Andy Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls inside the hotel. Joni Mitchell was inspired to write “Chelsea Morning” here. It’s also where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend.

After a couple of changes in ownership, the landmarked building closed to hotel guests in 2011. It took a decade for the current owners to overhaul the Chelsea for a new generation of guests—and for the few dozen residents who still call the Chelsea home. The Chelsea reopened its doors in 2022 and is also part of AFAR’s 2023 Stay List, a roundup of the best new hotels around the world.

But how exactly did this hotel and co-op apartment building turn into a hotbed of creativity in New York City? And how can the newly refreshed Chelsea remain relevant to the next generation of travelers—and artists? For answers to these questions, we’re diving into the hotel’s fascinating past, present—and future.

Let’s check in . . . to the Chelsea Hotel.

The Hotel Chelsea is located on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues. As I approach the building, I see its famous three-story neon sign that glows white and pink. The lobby looks the same as it did when I first visited. There’s the enormous fireplace, the velvet couches and wooden benches, the contemporary paintings on the walls. And with the renovation, it’s much less dusty. I end up at a reception desk with a wall of keys—they’re digital ones but the key cards are hanging from old-fashioned red tassels. Behind the lobby, I see a staircase with a wrought iron railing that winds all the way up to a skylight. People of all walks of life seem to be passing through the lobby—a mix of guests, staff, residents, and passersby who want to feel the vibe. Some are headed to El Quijote, the oldest Spanish restaurant in New York City located in the hotel, while others are parked at the busy Lobby Bar, where I chat with Courtney Kornegay, the maitre d’.

Courtney Kornegay, maitre d’: So one of the great things I love about Lobby Bar is it’s bringing back, like, New York elegance and now old school. Um, we don’t play music, which you probably have already realized. So it brings a mature crowd, like slightly more elevated. And it’s a place you can come, have a drink, and catch up with friends and just have a really good time. That’s really cool.

Jennifer (in dialogue): And does it get fun here on the weekend?

Courtney: Oh, yes, yes. Fridays and Saturdays. Saturdays especially, people start drinking martinis at, like, one or two o’clock in the afternoon and it’s completely busy for the rest of the evening until like we close at 2:00 a.m. So it’s a really good vibe on Fridays and Saturdays.

Jennifer: The place has so much energy that you’d never guess it was closed for most of the last decade.

Sean MacPherson, owner: On one hand, Hotel Chelsea is very much part of New York and has been part of New York and hopefully will continue to be part of New York. But simultaneously, Hotel Chelsea has always been sort of other. It’s always sort of marched to its own beat and, and so it’s been part of the city, but sort of on its own terms, like someone’s weird friend or something. And I think that the idea is to definitely—Hotel Chelsea, hopefully, will continue to interact and be part of the city, but it’s not like other hotels in the city. It’s not like other hotels in the world for that matter.

Jennifer: That’s Sean MacPherson. If you’re a hotel junkie like I am, you may have heard of him: He’s the one behind the beloved Jane, Bowery, and Maritime hotels here in New York city—all fascinating projects with their own histories and scenes. He now owns the Chelsea along with Ira Drukier and Richard Born. I’m sitting with Sean on the ground floor of the hotel in what used to be known as the Ladies Tea Room, which doubled as the office of the hotel’s late manager, Stanley Bard. Stanley ran the place for more than four decades and occasionally took rent in the form of artwork. Sean and I are at a long wooden table beneath ceiling frescoes of cherubs and garlands. And he’s telling me that anyone who’s ever owned the Chelsea Hotel has gone broke.

Sean: It was a very challenging job and I think it didn’t necessarily make economic sense. But it did make romantic sense to myself and my partners, meaning that, you know, we really did love it and do love it, and we really believe that in the long run. It’s been extremely challenging, uh, to work with this building that really [had] been, uh, been sort of held together with Scotch tape and paperclips since it was built. They had never really upgraded any of the systems. So the, the elevators, the fire safety system, the hot water system, et cetera, was all just patched together over, you know, close to the last 120, 130 years.

Jennifer: So what exactly appealed to Sean and his business partners? I ask him about his personal connection to the hotel.

Sean: I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t aware of Hotel Chelsea because of Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin or et cetera. I moved to New York in 2000 and I was opening a restaurant not far from here called the Park Restaurant on 10th Avenue in Chelsea. And my mother came to town and I put her up here at the Hotel Chelsea, because it was close to where my apartment was. And it was still, you know, semi-functioning as a hotel, and I had many friends who lived here, but I was astonished by just how seedy it was. My mother was quite, uh, was quite a hardy traveler and even for her it was pretty grimy. I still did love the feeling of it and the history of it and the physically—it’s a beautiful building. It’s quite—I called it [a] grand dame. Um, and also in terms of its just soul. It felt like it carried spirits in it in some way. When I was given the opportunity to get involved in this, I was really, really, really humbled and, um, jumped at it.

Jennifer: I ask what it felt like to be handed the keys of such a legendary place that also needed a lot of TLC.

Sean: The first mandate for sure was: Don’t mess it up. Uh, genuinely, you know, sort of, and of course there’s probably, you know, [a] dozen different people that would do a dozen different ways and then they would all be fine. So, you know, I, I think that, um, the way that we restored it, et cetera, may or may not be exactly to everyone’s taste. Hopefully it is, but it is done in a way where I would hope that people feel that we respected the, the bones of the architecture and the spirit of the building and the history of the building. So we worked very hard to not ruin it.

Jennifer: Sean and I go up one of the two elevators that flank the reception desk, and in a few minutes we’re in a guest room. I notice gauze curtains that look like someone burned cigarette holes into them—but managed to do it with a sense of style.

Sean: I found this fabric and they have all these holes torn in them and they’ve felt to me, vaguely, like they evoked torn jeans and, and torn jeans to me were, you know, so kind of rock and roll. And so that is a place where it’s meant to sort of touch on the rock and roll history of the building. Um, then even these English roll arm couches, which are elegant and classic, and then there’s sort of a mix. On one hand, the backs are all in, uh, canvas or linen, which is a pretty modest material. And the seats are in mohair with brush, which is sort of a high-end material and sort of a, a mix of high and low simultaneously. And I think that’s sort of the, the feeling.

Jennifer (in dialogue): I feel like I can just be myself in it. It’s, I don’t know, like, or just be like, in another city that I’m excited about and just play in that city. I don’t know, there’s something very, like, exciting about the design of the room. It feels like I’m trying to find the right words, but like—

Sean: Louche.

Jennifer (in dialogue): It’s louche. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You got it. You got it.

Jennifer: From one suite, he takes me outside to see the famous neon sign up close.

Jennifer (in dialogue): Wow. We are stepping out onto the terrace, the famous wrought iron terrace, and this is incredible.

Sean: This is 23rd Street and there’s a Hotel Chelsea sign right there, which is the famous sign.

Jennifer (in dialogue): Oh my god, this is so cool.

Sean: If you look at Google images or photographs, Chelsea Hotel, it seems that every famous person [who] ever checked in here, checked in, they took off all their clothes, they got on the terrace in front of the sign and had someone take a picture of that. So, uh, there’s endless pictures of naked celebrities in front of this sign, or perhaps not celebrities, but luminaries.

Jennifer (in dialogue): I love it. That’s awesome. I just, I may take a quick snap of this because—I won’t take my clothes off, I promise.

Jennifer: I’m loving the renovation, which feels a little bit Old World Europe, a little bit rock and roll, and a little bit NYC apartment. It feels appropriate for all the creativity that congregated here. Arthur Miller called the Chelsea home for a handful of years in the ’60s after he split from Marilyn Monroe. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe shacked up together here in the ’70s. Thomas Wolfe spent his last years here writing You Can’t Go Home Again, which was published after he died. Madonna was photographed for her infamous Sex book here.

Built in 1884 by a Frenchman named Philip Hubert, the Chelsea was one of the first apartment cooperatives in NYC. Today, more than 70 percent of NYC apartments are co-ops, including the one I live in. Originally called the Chelsea Association, it began to accept hotel guests in 1905 due to financial stresses and the shifting of residential and commercial ventures in Manhattan. Back then, it was in the middle of the theater district, kinda like the Times Square of its day. New owners bought the Chelsea in 1939, which ushered in the most celebrated era of the hotel.

For a history lesson, I’m calling up Sherill Tippins, the author of the book Inside the Dream Palace, which chronicles the Chelsea and its personalities. She’s in southeastern France for a festival celebrating the lives of the utopian philosophers Charles Fourier and Victor Considerant. The ideas of these two 19th-century philosophers informed Hubert’s vision for the Chelsea. Hubert wanted to help young people who were moving to the city and needed affordable housing.

Sherill Tippins, author: What this utopian idea is all about is that, first, you save money, uh, by living together and sharing, um, you know, facilities, and you use [that] freedom from owing money for rent—you use that patch to free up your time, and by freeing up time, you become more creative. And at the same time, you have a rich social life because you’re living among like-minded people. But it’s important, uh, to have a diversity of personality types.

Jennifer: In her book, Sherill paid special attention to how the people passing through the hotel interacted with one another.

Sherill: I love to show how artists influence one another and how that mix of ideas is then put into the larger world and how it affects the larger world and how what’s happening in the outer world comes back in and influences the art. So the Chelsea is a perfect place to do that kind of study to see how the artist mirrors society and how society feeds off the art and learns and grows because of the art.

So I could, I could, uh, transition from one artist to another in that way and kind of weave a network of people responding to other people, people responding to events outside the hotel and interpreting them through their art. For example, uh, Leonard Cohen, um, you know, he thought, uh, uh, Edie Sedgwick was cute, so he got managed to get an invitation to her apartment and, uh, you know, so then I could talk about Edie Sedgwick, you know, and then of course he mentioned Janis Joplin. So I could go into Janis Joplin’s life and once I was focused on an artist, then I could go into their background and tell readers, you know, how they had come to this point in their lives and what they were doing there, why they were there, and, uh, how being with all of these other people enhanced their work or, or, or didn’t. But I think it almost always did.

Jennifer: Sherill also stayed in the Chelsea several times before it closed and even wrote a chapter of her book there.

Sherill: What struck me most about the Chelsea, every time I go there, and it still does—but especially then during those times—was it didn’t matter who you were.

Like as soon as you walked through the door, as soon as you had a room, you were part of the family and they immediately came up—you know, the people behind the front desk came up with a nickname for me, and the people who lived there were, were totally open to talk[ing] to me and would introduce me to other people who live there and show me their artwork and invite me to their shows. It was like you were at home with a family, whether or not you knew the people there, you know. It was, it was unique. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place in New York City that felt that way.

Jennifer: I ask Sherill what she thinks the Chelsea’s future might hold.

Sherill: I think that the owners have really worked to uncover the original details that remain—there aren’t very many—and make it, um, the glamorous, uh, luxurious and yet home-like place that it originally was in the last gilded age. So I think, you know, Chelsea, it just permeates it—it transforms itself over and over and over.

One good thing is that, uh, is that it does still have the, the, um, older residents because they, they hold the memory of the Chelsea. You know, you need the word of mouth from generation to generation for the hotel to survive. And so without them, I might have been more pessimistic. But since they’re still there and they’re still infusing the hotel with its history and with its personality, I, I have hope for its future.

Jennifer: Speaking of tenants, I’m curious to know what it’s actually like to live in the Chelsea today. Luckily, on the same day I meet Sean, he makes a call to Chelsea tenants Nick and Zoe Pappas. They ask for a few minutes to prepare themselves before I come up. Ten minutes later, when I enter their apartment, I immediately recognize them from the Martin Scorsese documentary Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel. Nick’s thick, wavy hair makes me think of Mick Jagger. He’s wearing a collared shirt and Zoe’s wearing a dark floral print dress.

Zoe’s been a tenant at the Chelsea since 1994, and Nick moved in when they married in 1997. We’re in their light-filled one-bedroom unit, and the walls are filled top to bottom with artwork and artifacts. The couple stayed on through the renovation and watched as Sean’s team transformed the place. Nick is an architect and tells me about the four-figure faucets the owners installed in their apartment. There are lots of paintings made by Zoe herself, ranging from landscapes to a self-portrait, and textiles from Romania where she’s originally from. While not every tenant approved of the renovation, Nick and Zoe are among the majority of tenants who are happy with the changes.

Nick: What they’ve done to improve and beautify the places. It’s beyond description. It’s so beautiful.

Jennifer (in dialogue): [Tell me] about like—so when you first heard. OK, because it, didn’t it go through a few owners?

Zoe: Yes. So that’s third, third outfit.

Nick: Let, let’s just stick with the third and current one because, well, the second one was very, very good, but this one’s even better. And we’re happy he’s here—[that] they are here with their current investors.

Jennifer (in dialogue): What exactly did they do and how did things change?

Zoe: Nothing changed. If you talk to other people, they are going to tell you that they destroyed the Chelsea, uh, which is one of the most outrageous things they can say. Bot only [did] they repaired the building, but they restored the building. Because if you go downstairs, on the bar, on the, uh, I mean they redid all that, uh, wainscotting and they did it perfect. And then they, they, they took care of all the, uh, uh, fleur-de-lis because some of them, uh, were basically destroyed and they redid them. The same thing they did with, uh, the ceilings.

If you talk to anybody who tries to tell you that they destroyed it, uh, that’s, that’s, that’s very far—

Nick: The improvement is amazing

Jennifer: So after all that time without guests, how are things going now that they’re back?

Nick: The Lobby Bar is fabulous and it’s incredibly popular, and they’re getting reservations. Uh, we look forward to just walking through the lobby. Hearing the people from different countries and different languages. And on occasion, uh, I know my wife will attest to this, I know she will because we’ve made friends with people that we’ve met on occasion. Uh, it could be in the lobby bar or in the lobby or, or on the elevator and they go, “Ooh, you live here, so tell us about it.”

Zoe: [They ask] can they come and visit? And we say, “Of course!”

Nick: And then they, they come and visit. It’s the truth. It’s the truth. We have friends in Paris, we have friends in, in, uh, London that, uh, we met here and we maintained the, uh, the relationship.

Jennifer: I’m not the first hotel visitor to be invited into Nick and Zoe’s apartment, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be their last. The warm welcome they gave me, regardless of who I was, felt akin to that original spirit of openness and equality that the Chelsea has always seemed to embrace. But it also means that the kind of hospitality here may feel a bit different from what you’d find in the city’s five-star hotels.

Sean: And if one thinks of the Four Seasons as a well-oiled machine and, you know, very well structured, well organized. Hotel Chelsea is just an eccentric bird and, and it’s ultimately very human. Chelsea, by design, is just a very human place and [it] came down to, you know, tenants living on every single floor and them having their own particular needs that are not necessarily the same as the needs of, say, a hotel guest.

And one of the things that’s been heartening is, so far, the audience has been self-selecting, meaning it’s people that sort of have some familiarity. The guests are—people tend to be people that have some familiarity with the history of the building. And they want to stay here and they want to like it, and they don’t expect a perfect corporate experience. They know that people live here and they know that, that Chelsea has always been some sort of bastion of bohemia and they’re seeking that out. And so that’s been really nice because part of the charm of the building is that it is imperfect.

Jennifer: Sherill agrees that, for the hotel guest, the beauty of the Chelsea lies in its imperfections.

Sherill: If one of the regular tenants glares at you in the hallway, don’t worry about it. They’re allowed to be temperamental, you know. Uh, it’s part of the, you know, the friction again, [it] is part of the intellectual stimulation. It’s part of the fun of being at the Chelsea is it’s a crazy place and you can’t wash all the craziness out of it. It’s, it’s still there and that’s what’s unique about it. So, um, if you’re a persnickety type and you don’t want anything to go wrong, I would recommend probably going somewhere else and come, come here for a good time.

Jennifer: I’m loving all the conversations I’m having about guests of the past, present, and future. But there’s one other kind of guest—of the more otherworldly variety—that I’m dying to ask about. After all, many people consider the Chelsea to be one of America’s most haunted hotels.

Sean: So my 11-year-old son asked me the, the other day, he said, “Daddy, why do you only do hotels that have ghosts in them?” And um, and he was talking about the Chelsea obviously, but also Bowery is alleged to have ghosts. And Jane Hotel was alleged to have ghosts and for some reason the Maritime was also alleged to have ghosts.

Um, so yeah, I think a building that is this old and has so many illustrious guests is, you know— people are bound to feel that there are ghosts there. And somehow you, you do feel spirits whether you believe in ghosts or not. You know, one can feel some sort of, uh, energy.

Jennifer: Sherill believes that ghosts may even have helped to inform her research. The first time she stayed at the Chelsea, she brought a friend who claims to have second sight.

Sherill: She said the Chelsea was, uh, the most haunted place in New York City except for the New York Public Library, the main library. But she said they kept her up all night, every night. We stayed there for about five days and, um, they, they all crowded around. They wanted to tell their stories, and they were dressed in clothing from different eras. And she said, “It’s not that they all died there, but it was like a ghost hotel. They passed through.” But there was one ghost who was really loud mouthed and, and sort of nudged his way to the front of the crowd every night so he could do the talking. And he must have been from the ’60s because every, every sentence ended in “man,” and he was telling her, um, “It’s, look, the Chelsea Hotel. It’s not about the art, man. It’s about the life. OK? It’s about the life you live.” We decided that perhaps he was Larry Rivers, because I showed her a picture of him later, the artist, um, and she said, “That’s him.”

It became kind of a motto. It, it became the key for me in writing a book, in fact, because the Chelsea isn’t about the art produced as much as it’s about living a creative life, living a, uh, an art, a free artistic life where you’re not judged. You can be anyone you want to be.

Jennifer: For my part, I’m already calling the legendary Hotel Chelsea one of my regular New York City haunts. I hope I bump into you at El Quijote, the Lobby Bar, or maybe even Cafe Chelsea, the French restaurant that’s opening in 2023. And remember: The best hotels in the world are so much more than just places to sleep. In the case of the Chelsea, it’s a historic hub for the creative culture that makes New York one of the world’s greatest cities. And if you want to read more about our Stay List collection of the best new hotels in 2023, visit afar.com/staylist. We’ll link to it in the show notes. I hope you liked this episode of “If These Walls Could Talk.” This is Jenn Flowers, checking out.

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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

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