When Sybao Cheng-Wilson was a teenager, she loved traveling from her family’s home in Queens to Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel.
“I started hanging out at the Chelsea in 1970,” she begins. “My older brother, the artist Ching Ho Cheng (1946 – 1989), lived in the building and I’d often spend weekends with him.” The atmosphere was electric, she says, with artists, actors, musicians, and writers—both famous and infamous—among the hotel’s long-and-short term denizens. “Everyone at the Chelsea was so open. You could be who you were and do what you wanted without being judged. Every Saturday night the drag queens would gather in the lobby. It was so inspirational. They looked so good, so gorgeous,” she says with a laugh.
Cheng-Wilson’s eyes widen as she describes the scene, then sadden as she continues telling me her story. “My husband and I moved into the Chelsea in 1988, shortly after my brother became terminally ill,” she continues. Her now-15-year-old daughter has grown up in the building and she presently administers her brother’s estate from his former studio. “The Chelsea is our home,” she stresses, a place she never dreamed would become contentious or unpleasant.
Like Cheng-Wilson, John D. Knoernschild also moved into the Chelsea in 1988. The retired composer and teacher says that he and his wife first visited the building at the invitation of his friend, Virgil Thompson. “Virgil gave these elaborate dinner parties in his room—he turned a closet into a kitchen—and they were among the great pleasures of my life,” he says.
Knoernschild and Cheng-Wilson clearly relish recounting the glory days of the 127-year-old building. Nonetheless, they, like approximately 75 other permanent, rent stabilized tenants, are focused on the future—their future—at the Chelsea. The reason? The August sale of the building to real estate moguls Joseph and Meyer Chetrit and the upheaval of renovations that began a month later.
Communication between tenants and the new owner has been minimal, causing rumors to flourish and fear to escalate. The New York Observer reports that the Morocco-born Chetrit brothers currently own 4.9 million square feet of commercial space, including several high end hotels, in New York City, plus properties in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The tenants are up against a formidable foe.
Sam Himmelstein is the lawyer representing the Chelsea Hotel Tenants’ Association, hired to ensure that the resident’s rights are protected. A lifelong Brooklynite with a proven track record as a tenant advocate, Himmelstein says that he agreed to represent the occupants, at least in part, because “as a child of the ’60s, I have an affinity for the iconic building.”
Indeed, the 12-story structure, a city landmark that is on the National Register of Historic Places, has housed a veritable Who’s Who since the late 19th century: Sarah Bernhard, Brendan Behan, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Ethan Hawke, Janis Joplin, Jack Kerouac, Madonna, Patti Smith, Mark Twain, and Andy Warhol, among them. Ghosts are also said to populate the hallways; poet Dylan Thomas and Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen, both of whom died at the Chelsea, are rumored to make periodic visits.
But the Chelsea’s fame extends beyond the people who have stayed there. Once the tallest building in Manhattan, it has been through numerous incarnations since opening in 1884. Designed as a luxury co-op, residents were initially lured by its lavish dining room, on-site health clinic, artist’s studios, and varied room sizes. Then, in an all-too-common turn, economic woes led to changes; the building became a hotel in 1905. While the history of the next three decades is murky, in 1939 Joseph Gross, Julius Krauss, and David Bard purchased the property. David’s son, Stanley Bard, took over in 1955 and managed the building until 2007 when Dr. Marlene Krauss, Julius’s daughter, and David Elder, Joseph Gross’s son, booted him out.
BD Hotels LLC took over from Bard, but the prominent management company didn’t last long. A year later, it too was replaced. The Chetrits—whose father runs a lucrative shipping business in Morocco—bought the building for more than $77 million in August and immediately stopped renting rooms to short-term guests, fired most of the staff, closed the telephone switchboard, and hired architect Gene Kaufman of Gwathney, Siegel, Kaufman and Associates. DNAInfo.com credits Kaufman with designing more than 10,000 NYC hotel rooms, including several Holiday Inns and Marriotts, since 1990. Kaufman is also responsible for the design of several Brooklyn condos including the Decora, Rialto, Shaefer Landing, and Dunham in Williamsburg.
According to plans filed with the Department of Buildings, the renovations at the Chelsea will include construction of a rooftop bar, street-level stores, a gym, and several restaurants. Furthermore, the number of rooms on most floors is expected to diminish.
Kaufman confirms that big changes are afoot. In an e-mail, he wrote that he is “restoring the hotel to its glory … in a way that is respectful of the tenants and the rich, colorful history while addressing the need to reinvigorate the building which was long beyond the point of needing renovation.” Kaufman further wrote that he is working closely with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, public officials, and city agencies to ensure that the process goes smoothly.
Not surprisingly, the tenants tell a different story.
Zoe Pappas, a resident for 16 years, is a structural engineer by training. She speaks quickly, railing about the fire hazard caused by locked stairwells, then pointing to the thick layer of dust that has been stirred up by the contractors. A late-October inspection by Olmsted Environmental Services, paid for by the Tenants’ Association, confirmed Pappas’s worst fears and chronicled a laundry list of extreme dangers. “Paint in this building is of an age that it contains significant levels of lead and when disturbed there will be significant levels of lead dust released into the air,” the Olmsted report concludes. It’s worth noting that lead is one of only three chemicals ever banned by the Environmental Protection Agency; exposure is known to cause anemia and damage the kidneys and nervous system. On top of this, the study found high levels of airborne fungi and bacteria—the result of leaks—as well as cancer-causing crystalline silica and dust. Fire hazards were also evident.
“Respectful of the tenants?” Neither they nor attorney Sam Himmelstein think so.
“We do not want the renovations to jeopardize the health and safety of the residents or be used to push them out of their homes,” Himmelstein says. “The Tenants’ Association and I will work to make sure the building remains habitable and we’ll do what we can to retain its character.”
Painter Mary Anne Rose moved into the Chelsea in 1978. Her husband, artist Herbert Gentry, began living in the building in 1969 or 1970 and remained there until his death in 2003. “It was the hippest place in the world back then,” Rose says. “It was so charming. Now I feel like the old lady on the frontier, barring the door to protect my home. When the Chetrits fired the staff, it disrupted a network of security. It was a foul thing to do. The relationship between the staff and the tenants had always been exceedingly cordial. We were a family. That they were suddenly out on their rears, without notice, was appalling. We’re now less safe. The people they brought in sleep on the job and don’t keep the front doors locked at night. Our security is at risk.”
Worse, she continues, is what she considers the disregard shown by both the Chetrits and Kaufman for a building that people all over the world see as an American institution. “Chetrit thinks the Chelsea Hotel is the outside wall,” she says. “He doesn’t see that it’s what’s inside, the guts of the building and the people, that make it special.”
Zoe Pappas quickly chimes in to agree with Rose. “When a landlord respects the tenants, construction is strictly obedient of the rules. There is a way to contain the dust, to make sure it doesn’t get tracked through the building. There’s a way to control noise. I’m from Romania and know people from all over Europe who love this building.” As her three birds—Rainbow Lories—fly over our heads, Pappas reaffirms her commitment to staying put. “The Chelsea is a pleasant atmosphere for me. It’s a very European way of living. People talk to each other, get together for a glass of wine. It’s a community where we trust each other. It’s not just a place to live—it’s a small neighborhood.”
NOTE: Several phone calls were made and e-mails sent to the Chetrit Brothers and their attorney, Michael K. Brown. They did not respond to my requests for an interview.