Depending on your favorite, or perhaps least favorite, period of modern American artistic expression, the Chelsea Hotel in New York City is either a symbol of potential and creativity or rock-bottom depravity. The truth, as explained by Sherill Tippins in her latest work of nonfiction, INSIDE THE DREAM PALACE, is that the hotel should be understood as both. The tricky --- and interesting --- thing is that to understand the ways in which the Chelsea has been a place of destruction, sadness and death is related to the ways it has been, for over 100 years, a place of intellectual and social freedom, and a beacon for the artists and thinkers who have shaped the cultural landscape of America.
The Chelsea Hotel opened its doors in 1884 with the intention of cultivating a relationship with artists and a mingling of various social and economic classes. This experiment was based loosely on the ideas of French utopian Charles Fourier and was part of a small but influential movement in the US and France of communal and unencumbered living. Each floor of what was then named the Chelsea Association Building had a mix of apartments, from luxurious multi-roomed suites to more modest two-bedroom arrangements. The building had state-of-the-art fire protection and original decorative elements based on American motifs. The top floor was reserved for sun-lit artist studios, and the roof had garden space and a brick promenade.
"Fascinating and dramatic, this meaty work of nonfiction captures the spirit of the place and puts the residents and passers-through into social, artistic and political context for readers."
Right away, some of America's best creative minds, as well as those from Europe, were drawn to the architecture, neighborhood and atmosphere of the Chelsea. Writer William Dean Howells is one of the first Tippins introduces. By the 1930s, such important figures as Edgar Lee Masters and Thomas Wolfe were living at the Chelsea, cultivating friendships, living an urban-bohemian lifestyle and working on masterpieces. Through the decades, the Chelsea, with its free-spirited and passionate community of writers, social activists, dancers, composers and artists, is the inspiration of people like John Sloan and Virgil Thomson, and later Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal and the Beat Poets.
The list goes on and on, and INSIDE THE DREAM PALACE shares stories --- amazing and heartbreaking --- of the lives lived in this landmark building. Over time, however, the reality of life at the Chelsea grew darker. Many residents had drug and alcohol problems as they struggled to support themselves financially. There was increasing violence in the rooms (which, decade by decade, had been divided up into smaller and smaller units), fires broke out on a regular basis, and the once stunning building fell into disrepair. The owners, staff and management did their best to keep the historic place afloat --- ignoring overdue rent, babysitting residents through breakdowns and drug detoxes, and continuing to promote the Chelsea as a muse for brilliant minds.
By the late 1970s, however, the Chelsea was overrun with drug dealers, prostitutes and thieves, and the devoted long-time residents often felt vulnerable. With the infamous murder of young punk rocker Nancy Spungen, the Chelsea, once home to Katherine Dunham, O. Henry, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Dylan and Harry Smith, seemed doomed.
The Chelsea Hotel is currently closed and its future uncertain. Whatever happens to it, INSIDE THE DREAM PALACE stands as yet another fantastic tribute. Fascinating and dramatic, this meaty work of nonfiction captures the spirit of the place and puts the residents and passers-through into social, artistic and political context for readers. Every page readable and totally engrossing, Tippins's book is a look at American history from a strange, compelling and important vantage point and is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 13, 2013