The Hotel Chelsea is a lynchpin of New York City lore. For a century on from its opening in 1884, artistic greats of each generation lived for a stretch in 23rd Street’s Victorian Gothic icon. Famous onetime residents run the gamut from Mark Twain to Eddie Izzard, Arthur Miller to Jimi Hendrix, Brendan Behan to Janis Joplin. But changing real estate in New York put the Chelsea out of reach for the bohemian set as the 21st century rolled in. The last signal that the Chelsea as we knew it was gone was its sale to a developer in 2011. Not long after, it stopped booking new guests or residents. Ever since, the building has been in an agonizingly prolonged state of renovation, with the several dozen residents who were grandfathered in fighting to stay and trying to keep too much of its history from being erased.
In the new documentary Dreaming Walls, which recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, directors Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdie rove the halls of the shuttered Chelsea, visiting those residents and some of the workers doing the renovations. It is contained almost entirely within the building, and its atmosphere is eerie, with drastically different spaces existing right next to each other like archaeological strata. An apartment that’s been unchanged for decades will open into a hallway mummified in plastic and tape, which leads to an atrium redone in the unappealing, antiseptic “hip” modern style of luxury.
This is a distinctly haunted-feeling film. Elmbt and Duverdie freely intercut their material with archival footage from the hotel’s glory days. Longtime resident and late-blooming artist Bettina Grossman, who died between the end of shooting and the premiere, is seen shuffling the halls and at home in her artwork-packed apartment. Watching her here is now like seeing a ghost. One scene travels a stairwell, alternating between shots of an impromptu party from what looks like the ’60s or ’70s and its vacant present, as if from the point of view of someone experiencing a vivid nostalgic reverie.
Other scenes convey that feeling simply by listening to the residents speak. In one, a man traces his steps through what was once Janice Joplin’s apartment, which he held onto for many years before finally yielding part of it to the new management. “This led into the living room,” he says as he lays his hand on a blocked-off doorway. “This is where the stove was,” he recalls, pointing out the still-distinct outline of grease on the wall. He stands in the former bathroom and holds the soapdish and toothbrush holder he managed to save, raising them up to the spot where they once rested on the wall (there are only studs now).
It’s difficult for a documentary exploring a New York hotel to escape comparison to Chantal Akerman’s 1972 masterpiece Hotel Monterey. Akerman shot solely in vacant, unpeopled parts of the namesake building, concentrating on the architecture and the vibes of a liminal space. The different, more human focus makes sense here. While the hotel’s reputation may have been built on the temporary residencies of so many famous figures, plenty of regular people have also called it home, many of them for decades.
Aficionados of New York history will devour Dreaming Walls, though it obviously comes with hefty melancholy. There are pieces of beauty interspersed with the wistfulness, though, often manifesting in unexpected ways. In one lovely scene, elderly Merle Lister cordially talks to a construction worker who effortlessly charms her, ultimately doing a brief, gentle waltz with her in a corridor, framed against a window with a nice view of the cityscape. For a moment, there is a spirit of community in the Chelsea again.
Dreaming Walls played as part of the Berlin Film Festival. Keep an eye out for future screenings.