The Croly Family, David, Jane, and their son Herbert, crusaded for social justice and fought to extend the utiopian ideas of the Chelsea to the nation as a whole. Historian Sherill Tippins, author of the forthcoming Dream Palace, a history of the Chelsea hotel, fills us in on the details:
In 1884, when the Chelsea was built, the writer David Croly praised the new cooperative as a "living temple of humanity" that offered limitless possibilities for improving urban life. "We are clearly in the beginning of a new era," he wrote in his journal, Real Estate Record, in which he tried demonstrate the close link between the city's real estate issues and its larger social aims. He urged other architects to join in Hubert's idealist mission--to "build tremendous stairs for [the] brave one hundred; splendid cities with pillars and arcades; front doors as wide as those of a cathedral and as rich in carved tracery." After all, he wrote, "Is not this what architects have long been looking for, this material and spiritual need for a new kind of building?"
Obviously, Croly understood the the Chelsea was more than an apartment building. It was an idea. If residents could share the costs of land, fuel, food preparation, domestic service, and home maintenance, they would have to work fewer hours to pay for these necessities and thus could spend more time on creative pursuits. If they also dined together daily, entertained one another with concerts and parties in their rooftop garden, and met for conversation in the lobby and on the stairs, their exchange of ideas might stimulate their thinking and improve the quality of their chosen work.
By 1900, many residents of the Chelsea cooperative had been persuaded by such books as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, promoted by former Chelsea guest William Dean Howells, that their creative energy could best be put to use helping the poor. Chelsea resident Charles G. Wilson, President of the new Board of Health, helped Jacob Riis research his shocking expose of Lower East Side poverty, How the Other Half Lives. George Iles, a writer and book collector, agitated for the creation of public libraries, and left his enormous book collection to the public library across the street when he died. The glamorous Baroness de Bazus, newspaper publisher and former sister-in-law of Oscar Wilde, donated millions to the suffragist movement. The sculptor John Sanford Saltus established prizes and other funds for deserving artists (before dying in London after drinking a glass of poison that he thought was ginger ale). Daniel Greenleaf Thompson wrote such books as Social Progress and The Problem of Evil. And William Howland, publisher of the progressive Outlook, helped create the League for Social Service, the American Civic Association, and the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants.
After David Croly died, his widow, the crusading journalist Jane Croly, moved into the Chelsea. A quasi-utopian cooperative suited her, since she and her husband had hosted one of New York's first idealist philosophical salons in the 1850s, inspired by the writings of utopian philosopher Auguste Comte. The Crolys were so committed to the idea of social justice that they christened their son, Herbert, in Comte's Religion of Humanity and dedicated his life "to the good of the human community." When Herbert was a child, his father used to take the shy, stammering boy on walks through Central Park, explaining to him man-to-man his responsibility to help achieve "the solidarity of mankind" and advance civilization by applying scientific principles to social problems.
Herbert Croly did his best to meet his parents' expectations by writing The Promise of American Life, which advocated progressive taxation, formal recognition of labor unions, and a centralized federal government, and Progressive Democracy, which favored replacing America's "live-and-let-live" political approach to a "live-and- help-live" attitude. He co-founded the progressive journal,The New Republic. And he became an advisor first to Theodore Roosevelt and then President Woodrow Wilson. If he ultimately failed in his well-intentioned efforts to inject Chelsea-style utopian theory into American government, as the centralized government served business interests more than the people's and the nation slid into World War I, at least he had helped establish an argument for a society based on "the religion of human brotherhood" and the "ardent and intelligent cultivation of the essential art of living."
The Chelsea's utopian dream would live again. (Photo: Herbert Croly, via Wikipedia)