I’d forgotten about the Chelsea Hotel. Even though I’m in the neighborhood at least once a week, its presence always eludes. Which is appropriate, because as its long-time residents age, and the NY real estate vultures circle, it’s no longer the place it once was – it hasn’t been for decades now.
And it really doesn’t matter. The place “it once was” never really was, except in the stories it created. And these are perpetual, as long as anyone cares to remember.
Without expecting to, I came upon it yesterday. And out of nowhere those old legends began to tumble forth.
It is a magnificent building. One of a kind. Gargantuan, imposing, and gothic, but with touches of grace here and there. If it didn’t already carry so much cultural baggage, it would have made an even more terrifying setting than the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby,
It opened in 1884, and its roster of short-term and long-term guests and residents is a staggering cross-section of the 20th century’s creative core. Mark Twain and O. Henry were early residents. In 1953, Dylan Thomas died here after his famous binge at the White Horse Tavern. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road here not long after. Not long after that, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in his room here. The 1960’s and 70’s saw Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Stanley Kubrick….
In the 60’s, actress Edie Sedgwick burned her roomed with an unattended cigarette, Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls; and in 1978, Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in the room she was sharing with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.
The litany goes on and on and on, and is the subject of more extensive research than mine.
In high school, during the late ’90’s, a couple of friends and I tried to sneak up the ornate staircase to get a glimpse of one of the rooms. We were stopped, but had a chance to speak with a longtime resident in the lobby, who “had seen it all”.
The Chelsea Hotel has inspired many a song. Here are two favorites:
Since 2001, as the official WTC Memorial was debated, planned, and constructed, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a de facto house of commemoration and remembrance.
Built in 1764, it is the oldest active church in the city – Two and a half centuries is not a terribly impressive lifespan in most places. However, for it to have survived unfazed in New York, whose physical past is most often deleted, is something of a miracle.
It was built when New York was little more than a village at the very bottom of a wild and rocky island – an outpost on the very edge of the known European world.
– In 1776, a great fire (possibly set by patriots fleeing the town upon the retreat of Washington after the Battle of Brooklyn), destroyed as much as a quarter of the town’s structures- including the iconic Trinity Church. (rebuilt in the 1840’s)
Somehow the fire completely passed over the chapel. The area surrounding St. Paul’s remained charred for the duration of the American Revolution.
When Manhattan burned again in the 1800’s, the church was again spared.
In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed across the street, but only an old sycamore tree in the churchyard took damage.
In the weeks following the 9/11 tragedy, St. Paul’s was a place of succor – giving recovery workers spiritual strength and beds to rest upon. Artifacts from that time fill the ancient building- firefighter helmets, prayer cards, and homemade banners of encouragement and remembrance sent from across the world.
St. Paul’s is something of a living ghost. Next to the pew where George Washington prayed before his inauguration sits an array of patches of fire departments whose men and women sacrificed safety and even life.
St. Paul’s and its Colonial-era graves have thoroughly watched the city grow around it. Somewhere in its spirit, it must recall the unpaved, muddy, filth-ridden streets, the wood-fronted houses, red-coated British soldiers, the rich, poor, the glorious, and the ragged.
It must remember the mighty skyscrapers that, in its neighborhood, began their thrilling rise a century ago.
Surrounded by the anonymous, frenetic masses of modernity, it must remember the close-knit village that hosted it- a New York when everyone was a small-town neighbor.
Today, St. Paul’s stands quietly, completely surrounded by massive towers, including those of the resurrecting World Trace Center. In its yard, the worn, decaying headstones of the first New Yorkers bear mute witness to the passing of generations they helped to define.
If only the graves could rise and see what has become of their village. If they walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, I’m sure their minds would be totally blown. – Absolutely nothing recognizable remains- except the street names, and their layout.
But I like to imagine that they’d be happy to know that at least one thing they built is still left behind- standing in modest pride.