Fri., August 9, 2013 5:00am (EDT)

Author Profiles New York Landmark
By Orlando Montoya
Updated: 8 months ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
James Lough takes an unflinching look at New York's Chelsea Hotel in a new book, "This Ain't No Holiday Inn."  (photo Triumph Books)
James Lough takes an unflinching look at New York's Chelsea Hotel in a new book, "This Ain't No Holiday Inn." (photo Triumph Books)
Two years ago this month, New York's famed Chelsea Hotel closed for renovations and stopped taking reservations.

The historic hotel was home to a dizzying array of artists, musicians and authors.

One Georgia writer has spent the last decade researching a pivotal time in the hotel's history.

James Lough is the Savannah connection to this Big Apple icon.

He's a writing professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

And he burned up lots of miles from Georgia to New York to interview people who lived and worked in the hotel in the 80's and 90's.

"The Chelsea Hotel is a hotel but it's also many other things," Lough says. "I call it the country's longest-standing-most-influential artist colony to ever occur in the United States."

Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix.

The list of famous artists who lived at the Chelsea fills three columns on an entire sheet of paper.

The building itself is a twelve story Victorian Gothic building with delicate iron gates and a grand staircase.

Lough says how this set of red bricks came to house all these artists goes back to the hotel's owners.

"The Bard family, in particular, who owned the Chelsea, had a real love for artists," Lough says. "So, they would invite artists in. They would give them breaks on their rent. They would take artwork instead of rent, sometimes. And they actually garnered this reputation that the Chelsea was a great place for artists to live."

The place was dirty. But the rent was cheap.

A central character in the hotel's story is its long-time former manager, Stanley Bard.

"He was rather permissive about what kinds of behavior they might exhibit, too," Lough says. "He knew they were artists. He knew they liked to party."

Drug-fueled debauchery attracted criminal elements.

Heartache and personal ruin haunt the pages of Lough's book, "This Ain't No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel."

Lough describes several killings that took place at the hotel, including one involving a member of the influential punk rock band The Sex Pistols and his girlfriend.

"Well, the most famous murder at the Chelsea was when Sid Vicious allegedly murdered Nancy Spungen in their room on the second floor," Lough says. "That's a bad one. And there were lots of suicides."

Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Rufus Wainwright composed songs at the Chelsea Hotel.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke argued over the screenplay for "2001: A Space Odyssey" there.

But things changed in the 1990's.

In a phenomenon familiar to many gentrifying urban neighborhoods, the Chelsea became a high-end condo development.

Lough bemoans what's become of it -- and counter-cultural hubs nationwide.

He says the new tenants lack the desperation, urgency and wildness to take risks and launch artistic movements.

"Unfortunately the new owners, who are stripping the rooms and remodeling the entire place, do not let people come in and look at it anymore," Lough says.

The book is written in an oral history format.

That means Lough's narration is kept to a minimum.

And the voices of the people he interviews are expressed in long passages, almost like a conversation.

The book is published by Schaffner Press.