Watching the documentary “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel,” I remembered a different renovation saga, one that came closer to home. At first I couldn’t quite recall the name, but I finally figured out it was the Raymond Theatre. The Raymond Theatre (also known as Perkins Palace) was built in 1921. The Chelsea Hotel (222 West 23rd Street) was built in 1883 and 1885. The Raymond Theatre’s renovation was part of a long on-going debate and “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” takes us inside the disrupted lives within an actual historic place. The Chelsea Hotel building was designated a New York City landmark in 1966 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. Unlike the Raymond which was vacant, there were still long-term residents during the decade long renovation.
Like the Raymond which was featured in “This Is Spinal Tap” which used the Raymond’s stage and “Pulp Fiction” which used the exterior as the location for a boxing match, the Chelsea Hotel has been the scene for famous and infamous films beginning with Andy Warhol’s 1966 “Chelsea Girls.” A PBS reality TV series, the 1973 “An American Family,” was filmed here. The more mainstream film, the 1986 “9 1/2 Weeks” with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, used the hotel as a scene location. The 1993 “Romeo Is Bleeding” and the 1986 “Sid and Nancy” was partially filmed here. Ethan Hawke directed a 2001 independent film based on Nicole Burdette’s 1990 play of the same name which was about artists living at the Chelsea.
But the Chelsea’s stream of celebrities began before Warhol. Mark Twain (1835-1910) and O. Henry (1862-1910) stayed there. Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), Arthur Miller (1915-2005) and Sam Shepard (1943-2017) also found their way there. Stanley Kubrick, Jane Fonda, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke and Russell Brand soaked in the atmosphere. Musicians from Che Baker, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Cher, Jimi Hendrix , Madonna and Janis Joplin stayed there. Madonna used room 822 to shoot photographs for her infamous 1992 photo book “Sex” in the Chelsea.
Besides Warhol, visual artists like Ching Ho Chung (1946-1989), Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Mapplethorpe and Willem de Kooning added to the bohemian atmosphere.
And there are ghosts. Author of “The Lost Weekend, Charles R. Jackson, committed suicide there in 1968. The American rock musician and sometime actor known as Jobriath (born Bruce Wayne Campbell, 1946-1983) spent his last days there before he died of AIDS. Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, was found stabbed to death. Dylan Thomas was there in his final days.
Co-directors Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier came upon this story by chance. Van Elmbt wandered into the Chelsea when she was in the area presenting her first feature film just down the block during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. While looking around, they met an elderly dancer, Merle Lister, a long-time resident. Lister once staged performances at the Chelsea and she isn’t above dancing when she can find a willing partner and an audience–even if it’s a construction worker. Lister is now uses a walker. There’s another man there who uses a cane, his back curved by the weight of years.
The hotel stopped accepting long-term residents. Those who remain there have mostly been moved out of their original apartments. The bare brick we see may seem charming and even foreign to people from the West Coast. Elmbt and Duverdier try to show what has been lost, using archival footage in between interviews with the current residents. We’re told: “There are people here who really are the remnants of another time of New York when Manhattan was a bohemian and avant grade center of activity,” a time when the Manhattan “art world was really lively and vibrant and juicy” but we’re also told, “Now I think that time was gone.”
The quaintness of the bare brick walls and exposed plumbing and wires is transformed when a residents calls the renovation “like a slow motion rape of this building.” The integrity of the history has been demolished. One resident had lived in a one-bedroom apartment, but the bedroom, the bathroom, the entry hall and kitchen have now all gone away, reducing his living space to a studio apartment.
For some residents, the documentary is their last testimony. Two died before the documentary screened at the event that started it all: the Tribeca Film Festival. The film will no doubt increase curiosity toward the now reopened hotel, but it will also bear witness to the difference between a restoration and a renovation. And it might inspire more than a few to look around their own hometowns and favorite places.
The Raymond became part of a condominium. South Pasadena’s Rialto Theatre which mixes Spanish Baroque and Egyptian kitsch was built in 1925 and featured in the 2016 “La La Land” and the filming location for the 1991 “The Rocketeer,” the 1992 “The Player” and the 1997 “Scream 2.” Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it now serves as a campus for a non-denominational multi-site church based in Los Angeles.
If you find books from the past detailing the famous or noteworthy buildings of the past, you’ll find that not so many survived. I guess one can consider the bright side–at least the buildings weren’t razed to the ground and replaced by some anonymous box of a building. For people interested in historic architecture this can be a hollow victory. The interiors provide a more intimate look at the past.
“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” is a contemplative documentary about the past, an affectionate look at what at times must have been a grungy and not too glamorous lifestyle that now can be romanticized. The documentary shows that buildings can have character while providing a creative haven for characters who live large and might die surrounded by the silence of generational forgetfulness. Will the Chelsea Hotel rise again to cultural significance? By focusing on the past, “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” forever immortalizes those who remember the dreams of artistic immortality and those who now dream of the past. The film made its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of this year. It made its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.