When Colin Miller and Ray Mock set out to document the remaining inhabitants of Hotel Chelsea, the bohemian haven where Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, William S. Burroughs and others once lived and worked, they imagined it as a sort of requiem.
After all, much of the 12-story Gilded Age building, once New York City’s tallest, has been gutted and is being converted into apartments and hotel rooms.
Instead, they found daring, dramatic style alive and well in many of the hotel’s remaining homes. Their new book, “Hotel Chelsea: Living in the Last Bohemian Haven” (The Monacelli Press), is a big, colorful celebration of more than two dozen residents, their living spaces and their stories.
“I went into this thinking I was making some kind of eulogy, recording something that was being lost. But I discovered that while there are huge portions of the hotel that were gutted, it’s still a living place, with vibrant amazing lives being lived there,” says photographer Miller.
After much legal wrangling and a few changes of building ownership, between 50 and 60 people still live in the Chelsea, a national historic landmark in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Nineteen of them are featured in the hefty coffee-table book.
Miller calls it “a story of resilience, an exploration of how people adapt in New York City.”
“I’m not sure I could see myself living in some of these situations, but they’re really beautiful,” adds Miller. “It seems like every door that opens enters into a whole different world.”
Mock, who wrote the text, concurs. “You never know what to expect when walking into these apartments,” he says. “I had a real ‘Oh, wow!’ moment when I walked into Tony Notarberardino’s apartment, for example. Earthy rich colors on the walls and ceiling. It immediately opened a window into the past.”
The apartment consists of two rooms joined by a colorfully painted curved hallway, and is one of the most visually arresting apartments featured in the book.
The rooms are crowded with “wondrous objects, photographs, furniture, and garments, yet each has its own visual identity owing to the elaborate murals left behind by a previous tenant, the enigmatic artist Vali Myers, in what is now Notarberardino’s bedroom,” reads a description in the book. It goes on to describe Notarberardino’s own first impressions of the building he has long called home.
“It was late at night. I walked in and immediately loved it. I felt like I had walked into a movie set,” he’s quoted as saying.
Describing the book project, Mock says, “Maybe part of what attracted me to Hotel Chelsea is some of these apartments reminded me of my college apartment. There are living spaces where no wall is unpainted. People just get an idea in their head and they go for it. It’s very liberating.”
The residents of Hotel Chelsea can teach us all something about the rooms we live in, he and Miller say.
“In terms of my own apartment, it emboldened me a little bit,” admits Mock. “It reinforced my belief that it’s OK to be a little wild and different, and a little clutter is OK.”
Miller, a self-described minimalist, says immersing himself in the world of Hotel Chelsea made him push his aesthetic limits.
“One of the things I love so much is how bold the living spaces are. All the walls are black, or all the walls are red. They show how to be really brave when you’re making design decisions,” says Miller.
“I generally have a pretty minimalist aesthetic, but now I’m thinking about doing a room of my home in wallpaper. I saw an apartment all done completely in antique wallpapers at Hotel Chelsea,” he admits. “I never would have considered that before.”
He was referring to the home of Suzanne Lipschutz, an antiques dealer and wallpapers expert who moved into Hotel Chelsea in the 1990s and immediately set to work transforming her one-bedroom apartment.
The book describes her wallpaper as “exquisite period papers and borders selected to amplify the mood in every corner of the apartment. The small private hallway of her unit, which she shared for years with her next-door neighbor, the actor Ethan Hawke, was covered in American arts and crafts wallpaper showing a lush forest scene. She later donated rolls of the same wallpaper to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.”
Lipschutz says of her home, “It became this gem, this jewel box of an apartment.”
The book’s other big take-away is Hotel Chelsea’s sense of community, particularly unusual in a big city like New York.
“Some of that is lost, but there are so many stories of dinner parties attended by all the residents on an entire floor, of people who always left their doors open and neighbors who were also good friends,” says Mock.
“After hearing all these stories, I asked myself what I can do in my life to foster a sense of community, with maybe shared gatherings on the rooftop, or other ways to reach out to neighbors,” he says.
While it remains to be seen when and whether Hotel Chelsea will open to a mix of new tenants and hotel guests, as was planned at one time, Miller and Mock say everyone featured in the book will be able to remain there.
“And some are raising kids, so there’s another generation growing up in Hotel Chelsea,” Miller says. “Its story is continuing.”