Over the course of its long history, the Chelsea Hotel has been primarily associated with the arts. But the hotel also boasts a proud tradition of social activism. From Philip Hubert and William Dean Howells to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Abbie Hoffman and beyond, Chelsea Hotel residents have refused to knuckle under to the forces of oppression, choosing instead to refuse and resist, to fight back, and to struggle for the betterment of the human race. Those of you who want the full story will have to read Sherill Tippins’ upcoming history of the Chelsea, Dream Palace. (Fun Fact: the Chelsea may have been designed to encourage celebratory orgies!) But in the meantime, she has been good enough to give us a preview:
First up: Philip Gengembre Hubert, Chelsea architect, child of the socialist uprisings in Paris and supporter of many of utopian proto-socialist philosopher Charles Fourier's ideas. Fourier believed that it is society's duty to adapt itself to the desires and needs of human nature of all kinds--as opposed to the current state of affairs in which individuals are forced to conform to society's commercial and industrial requirements. Fourier designed large palaces, called phalansteries, in which residents would choose their own work--changing their activities every two hours or so to prevent boredom--while enjoying five elegant, stimulating meals per day together, working together on elaborate opera productions, eschewing marriage, domestic chores, and individual child-raising in favor of free love, a communal kitchen and laundry, and nurseries for the children, and marking their group successes with celebratory orgies. For a phalanstery to work in harmony, Fourier believed, it must include at least 1620 people. (He later decided that 810, or even 400, people would so in a pinch if necessary.) A group this size was likely to contain at least one of each basic type of human being. In Fourier's philansteries, every type was welcome and each type given work and an environment suitable to his or her nature--no matter what his or her age, social background, talents or interests, sexual proclivities, or moral makeup. Only by refusing to restrict any expression of the true self could a society remain healthy and fully productive, Fourier claimed. Artists in particular needed such an enviornment in order to perform their role as members of the avant-garde, seeking out new directions for society to go.
The Chelsea's dimensions are remarkably similar, if not identical, to those of Fourier's phalansteries. (Though Fourier's were shaped like a squared-off letter "U," like traditional palaces, New York lot sizes required a folding in of the two wings toward the center, resulting in a central wing of double thickness, with an eight-foot-wide corridor running through the center.) The building is large enough to hold the minimum number of 400 people. Shared dining rooms and roof promenade were provided. The purpose was to create an atmosphere of freedom in which an American culture could begin to form. At the same time, down the street at 23rd and Park, he also built the original Lyceum, then a community theater (that is, non-commercial)--probably the first ever built in the city. Along with it, he created the Lyceum School of Drama, later to evolve into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts--the first successful drama school in the city open to all students, male and female, regardless of their ability to pay. The theater and school stood in for Fourier's opera house, where citizens of the phalanstery worked out the stories that would define their life together.
Because Philip Hubert's cooperatives made housing so inexpensive, New Yorkers stood in line to get an apartment in one of his buildings. He made a fortune from what he called his Home Clubs. In 1886, when the socialist reformer Henry George ran for New York mayor--backed by some of the city's wealthiest former abolitionists and other old activists--Hubert (a resident of the Chelsea at the time) became George's largest financial backer. Henry George's demand that New York's (and America's) increasingly valuable real estate and natural resources be taxed at nearly 100% as a "single tax," freeing Americans from having to pay income tax, sales tax, or any other fees that discouraged productivity, increased poverty, and encouraged damaging speculation through real estate warehousing, evictions, etc., inspired huge marches through the streets of the city in support of his plan. He nearly won the election, but the Tammany machine managed to slip in enough votes to snatch power out of the socialists' hands.
Meanwhile, large apartment houses including Hubert's cooperatives were banned in New York--ostensibly from fear of fires or the spread of disease in such large buildings. But since hotels were not similarly restricted, the ban appeared to be at least partly designed to target the "socialist" cooperatives. In any case, even after the ban was lifted, the true communal purpose of the cooperatives was forgotten over the decades and just the financial advantages were retained. Hubert himself, frustrated by his inability to see his program through after 1895, moved to California, where he spent the rest of his life designing small homes and labor-saving devices for the working poor. To the end, he considered The Chelsea his greatest creation.