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Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotelby Sherill Tippins
Once in about every generation, attention is called to our social system . . . A class of men . . . unite to condemn the whole structure . . . The object is not destructive, but beneficent. Twenty-five years ago an attempt was made in most of the northern States. There are signs that another is about to be made.
N. C. Meeker,
New York Tribune, November 3, 1866
A performer could not find a better stage in New York this sweltering night in August of 1884 than the sidewalk of West Tenth Street near the river, in one of the citys worst downtown slums. A proscenium arch of grime-covered tenements and fluttering valances of laundry framed a set of ash barrels and garbage piles. Sparks from the Sixth Avenue elevated trains provided illumination, and clattering horses and clanging streetcars added sound effects. Potential audiences were everywhere: the factory girls and tailors assistants strolling Sixth Avenue, the Irish toughs stumbling out of the gaslit saloons, exhausted mothers roosting on the stoops with their infants, and entire families looking down from the cheap seats on the tenement roofs where they spent their summer nights.
Every day, girls like Paula arrived in the city, missed their connections with families or fiancés, and ended up on streets like these. Just another lost soul, with her muddy hem and empty purse, the nineteen-year-old ordinarily would have passed invisibly through the crowd as she drifted west toward the rivers black void. But something about her straight-backed posture, about the peculiar fixed quality of her expression, alerted the street urchins that here was a diva preparing to perform. They left their games and trailed her in a taunting chorus until, at the corner of Bleecker, she spotted her leading man: a fresh-faced young policeman in a new uniform with shiny brass buttons. Drawing his innocent gaze with her wide-eyed stare, Paula put a hand to her throat and, with a single small cry, slid to the ground as though sinking into the sea.
Before, she had been invisible, but now she was seen. “Look! Look!” a boy shouted. “She had a fit, cant you see?” People came running from all directions; the tenement windows filled with spectators, some of whom had rushed half-clothed from their beds to feast their eyes on the tragic sight. Down on the sidewalk, those at the front of the crowd twisted their heads to shout “Quit shoving!” at the ones scuffling in the rear. Then the young officer pushed through, his helmet towering above the multitude of black caps. Everyone cheered as he picked up the limp body, and they followed along as he carried the woman several blocks to the Charles Street police station. To the crowds satisfaction, the station-house surgeon called an ambulance and dispatched the pretty young victim to St. Vincents Hospital, where the nuns would no doubt give her a basement cot for the night. It was a well-done performance: a heroine rescued, a young officer ennobled, and the Church waiting in the wings to perform its proper charitable role. The audience dispersed in a cheerful mood, as if they themselves had been saved.
That would have been the end of it if not for the arrival of a young New York Times reporter who had learned of Paulas performance from the police wire at the press office on Mulberry Street. He had recognized her at once from the wires description, having previously watched her hoodwink free lodging out of hospital officials from Long Island to the East River. When the reporter had first encountered her, in the chill halls of Bellevues insane pavilion, the girl identified herself as Pauline Esperanza Bolonda, but at another time, she gave the name Olga Helena Jesuriech, and at another, Frederica S. Jerome. Now, on the reporters arrival at St. Vincents, he was informed by the softhearted chief surgeon that the woman was the well-born “Frances Stevens of Switzerland,” newly arrived in this country and staying with friends on Twenty-Third Street — not just another homeless drifter hoping to avoid a night in a back alley or hallway squat.
Nonsense, scoffed the journalist. This “pretty and mysterious fable coiner” had no friends, no family, no proper employment. As she feigned unconsciousness on her cot, the reporter opened her purse and proved that she possessed not a cent. Furthermore, for the record, the address she had given on West Twenty-Third Street was the Chelsea Association Building, which was not yet finished — clearly, “Frances Stevens” could not be a resident there. She was a fantasist, a liar. Everyone knew the destiny of girls like this — a quick descent from Bowery dancehall to Thompson Street brothel to opium addiction and an early grave.
Better to withhold pity and allow fate to take its course — as it did the next day when the exhausted teenager, driven to distraction by a reporter determined to squeeze out of her plight one more story for the Sunday news, fled to a Second Avenue orphanage; threatened suicide if she did not get some protection; and was promptly arrested, investigated, and transported to the Blackwells Island insane asylum, an institution from which few women ever returned. She had no money — the only crime in this city for which there was no appeal — and so her next performance would likely take place on a medical-school dissecting table or in Potters Field.
“Paula Locked Up; the Wanderer of Many Names Arrested as a Vagrant” read the headline of the brief report in the Sunday New York Times. The architect Philip Hubert would hardly have chosen this story to introduce his Chelsea Association Building. If, as some said, one could judge the state of a society by its treatment of women, this city had much to answer for. Standing on the Chelseas roof, a hundred and fifty feet above West Twenty-Third Street, the well-dressed Frenchman could easily pick out the Lower East Side slum from whose orphanage the young woman had been hauled away. It was appalling, surrounded up here by summer sunlight and a fresh Atlantic breeze, to imagine how despairing she must have felt as she searched those streets for shelter.
The fifty-four-year-old architect could sympathize. Through a fluke of circumstance, he too had once been homeless for a time. At age fourteen, he had left his family home near Paris for an independent life and a job at an ironworks near the coast of France. Unable to afford a room on his pay of four sous per day, he had been forced to pitch a hammock in the woods outside of town. Luckily, he was discovered by a local priest who then helped him find housing and even volunteered to tutor him privately for the next two years. If not for that priest and his magnificent library, Hubert might not be here, forty years later, a highly respected architect with three grown children — his youngest a girl near Paulas age. Still, he knew what it was like to live on bread and water. The experience of hunger makes brothers of a surprising variety of people.
Hubert was proud of this building, his newest home club and now the largest residential structure in the city of New York. He looked forward to seeing it fill with the eighty families he and his partners had chosen to create a life together under its roof. For more than a year, passersby in the district had watched the Chelsea Association Buildings iron beams rise from cellars thirty feet deep, had seen its façade of Philadelphia pressed brick expand east and west across seven city lots. Horizontal bands of white stone gave its upper floors a festive appearance, while iron balconies with balusters wrought into the shapes of sunflowers added charm to the lower floors. But though its beauty inspired admiration, its sheer size sparked some anxiety in this city of brownstones that had seen its first apartment building, aside from the slum tenements, only a decade before. Exaggerated headlines like the New York Tribunes “Two Hundred Feet in the Air: A Thousand People under One Roof” played to public fears of fire, falling elevators, and the spread of disease. There were other fears too: that the forced intimacy of Parisian-style apartment living might lead the residents to looser moral standards, or, even worse, that the apartment-dwellers might be mistaken for the lower-class types in the rooming houses downtown. In a society lacking the Old Worlds clear, traditional class divisions, New Yorkers relied on their private brownstones “to guard their dearly-cherished state of exaltation,” as Hubert had archly noted in a recent brochure. Yet, with real estate prices rising astronomically, many New Yorkers had to choose between apartment living and exile.
Hubert had done his best to allay all these fears. Choosing a fashionable mix of Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne styles, he had festooned his building with cheerful, domestic asymmetrical peaked roofs, dormer windows, and clusters of red-brick chimneys. To address concerns about fire, he had separated apartments with cement-filled brick walls three feet thick and had sheathed the iron beams between floors with fireproof plaster, making it almost impossible for flames to spread from one residence to the next. There was no reason to fear the state-of-the-art elevators, designed by the Otis Company. And the Chelsea boasted every conceivable modern amenity as well: pressurized steam for cooking, speaking tubes for easy communication, a dumbwaiter for room service, eighteen hundred electric lights in addition to traditional gas jets, and even a telephone in the managers office for residents use.
But Hubert hoped that, beyond issues of safety and comfort, new residents would appreciate the integrity of the buildings design. From the streets broad sidewalk, they would enter a lodge-like reception hall, tastefully finished in mahogany wainscoting and white marble floors, with a carved fireplace to the left and an elegant ladies sitting room through arched doors on the right. At the center of the lobby, a brass and marble staircase adorned with bronzed-iron passionflowers wound up ten stories to an enormous skylight, through which sunlight tumbled to the ground floor. To the rear of that floor, behind the staircase, Hubert had installed three linked private dining rooms for the residents use, with a large kitchen that also served a public café accessible from the street. A basement barbershop and billiards parlor had been provided for the men. Behind these were the wine cellar, butcher shop, and laundry and coal rooms. An underground tunnel led to an annexed townhouse on Twenty-Second Street, through which deliverymen and servants could enter and leave the building unseen by residents.
But it was the roof, Hubert suspected, that would most please the occupants of the Chelseas apartments and top-floor artists studios. Here, high above the dust and noise of the growing city, he had created a pleasure park for the residents private use. A brick-paved promenade stretched a hundred and seventy-five feet east to west across the buildings rear half, soon to be furnished with benches and awnings to provide relief from the summer sun. The peaked roofs of a staggered row of apartment-studio duplexes jutted through the roofs center section, each entrance marked by a small private garden, adding the charming look of a small village to the space. And at the front of the building, atop the Chelseas central tower, stood an enormous slate-roofed pyramid with its own private garden that would serve as a clinic where residents could recuperate from illness among friends and family.
It was easy to imagine inhabitants of the Chelsea gathering here to attend concerts under stars undimmed by the new electric streetlamps on Broadway or to listen to poetry recitations as the sun set behind the river on summer evenings. Gazing down, they could trace the citys expansion up the island of Manhattan in successive waves of prosperity — northward from the crooked waterfront streets of the original Dutch West India Company settlement to the proper British townhouses near Bowling Green, past the proud Greek Revival homes built with Erie Canal profits around Greenwich Villages Washington Square, and finally to the aristocratic mansions of Gramercy Park and Union Square that marked the citys emergence as chief conduit between Europe and the nations interior.
These latter waves of development coincided, as it happened, with critical periods in Huberts own past. In 1830, as the agrarian Greenwich Village was absorbed and transformed by the encroaching city, Hubert was “christened on the barricades” of the July Revolution in Paris, where his architect father, Colomb Gengembre, had joined with other young technocrats to force the monarchist King Charles X from his throne. Having succeeded in replacing Charles with the more liberal-minded Louis Philippe, the group set to work through the years of Philips early childhood to rebuild French society in line with the writings of the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier.
At first glance, Fourier seemed an odd choice of champion for this coterie of sophisticated, intellectual Frenchmen. A lifelong eccentric left nearly penniless by his provincial merchant-father, Fourier barely managed to support himself on a municipal clerks salary, and his opinionated, cantankerous personality gained him enemies wherever he lived. Yet as a writer, Fourier demonstrated an exceptional gift for conveying both the horrors of life in the “stinking, close and ill-built” towns of early industrial France and the wonders of his vision for a liberated, creative, and productive new world.
The essential problem with modern society, Fourier believed, was its mind-boggling inefficiency. In order to serve the needs and desires of a minuscule privileged merchant class, the vast majority of citizens sacrificed their creative potential to lives of tedium and want as factory workers, servants, clerks, and manual laborers. The contrast between rich and poor had grown so stark — many among the majority were just one weeks pay away from homelessness and starvation — that men were willing to cheat, steal, and betray their brothers for a chance to enter the moneyed class, and women felt compelled to auction themselves off to the wealthiest suitors. To maintain their own positions, the wealthy armed themselves with brokers, speculators, and other middlemen who managed the nations wealth but produced nothing of value. Worst of all, the competition for privilege pitted citizens against one another, robbing them of the benefits and pleasures of community life. Isolated in their lonely homes, family members came to loathe one another, and thousands of women wastefully duplicated the tasks of domestic work and childcare.
Such a system corrupted everyone, Fourier wrote, as the wealthy wasted their lives in forced indolence, and the poor in unending drudgery. What was needed was a clearing of the decks of centuries of mindless custom, followed by a scientific approach toward answering these essential questions: What made for a fulfilling life? What did people really want, and what did they need? And how could a structure be created to fulfill the desires and needs of everyone, not just the fortunate few, in a way that would benefit all?
For years, in the hours not wasted at his job as a city clerk, Fourier filled hundreds of pages with ideas about how to create such a social structure — ideas based not on the past or on current perceived needs but on eternal, universal laws of human nature. Expanding on Isaac Newtons theories of gravitational force, Fourier came to believe that each of natures creatures, including humans, was attracted toward a particular set of activities and behaviors in the same way that a falling apple was drawn by gravity toward the earth. Over time, he developed a chart defining 810 personality types that represented every possible combination of “passionate attraction” in every variety of relative strengths. Because these diverse predilections were natural and God-given, Fourier wrote, it was societys sacred duty to permit them to develop unimpeded — allowing the “butterflies” to flit from one interest to the next, for example; assigning titles and uniforms to those who craved deference and respect; and giving the gossips a forum for exchanging news. Each personality type could be compared, in fact, to a key on a keyboard that, when played in glorious harmony with all of its fellows, produced a symphony of human expression — a synergistic “music of humanity” spurring the population forward in its spiritual and social evolution.
The trick lay in building a social instrument to house those keys so that each note could ring free and true. Fourier presented his idea for such a social structure: a self-contained community, which he called a phalanx, in homage to the close-knit military formations of ancient Greece. Each phalanx would consist of a full complement of 1,620 individuals — a male and a female representative of each of his 810 personality types — living together in an enormous palace, called a phalanstery, surrounded by workshops, orchards, and fields. As a group, the phalanx would make its living largely through agriculture and craftwork. But within the group, each individual could choose how much to contribute in terms of labor, special talent, or cash and lead a life of corresponding luxury or simplicity as a result. One could even forgo traditional labor in favor of study, artistic pursuits, or sheer leisure and still enjoy subsistence-level living, thanks to the collective savings realized through shared cooking, childcare, and resources. And all could take advantage of much grander libraries, dining halls, conservatories, and ballrooms than most isolated families could afford.
Supported by such a structure, members of various economic classes would find it natural to mingle freely without envy, sharing intellectual interests and creative activities along with domestic duties. With each man and woman assigned to his or her own private quarters, whether married or not, all would enjoy the space and freedom to follow their natural passions to full fruition. Under such conditions, inventions would proliferate, Fourier wrote, and he would not be surprised if a full-fledged phalanx produced a Milton or Molière with every generation. To maximize its chances, each phalanx would construct its own opera house where members could reflect on their shared experiences in the forms of music, art, drama, and dance.
Fouriers emphasis on pleasure and creativity appealed to Colomb Gengembre and his liberal-minded comrades, as did his practical strategy to free up the logjams of social productivity — an approach that Fourier fortified with extensive supporting documents ranging from blueprints for a phalanstery to menus for collective feasts. Fresh from the battles of the July Revolution, the young Frenchmen also appreciated Fouriers claim that violence was unnecessary to create this new society. All the men need do was develop their own model phalanx. When others saw how successful it was, they would leave their miserable lives to establish communities of their own, and, in time, Fouriers glorious human symphonies would cover the planet in a universal system he called perfect harmony — the next stage in human evolution.
By the time Hubert was two, his father and his colleagues had commenced building a model phalanstery outside of Paris, near the Gengembres country home. Philips earliest memories dated back to those days when his father, as the projects architect, directed the construction of the communitys workshops and common rooms. But as the project continued, personal disputes escalated. Finally, Colomb threw up his hands and resigned, then retreated with his family to the castle of his father, Philippe Gengembre, director of the government ironworks at Indret, on the Loire River.
For the next five years, young Philip soaked up the atmosphere of his grandfathers workshop, adopting the old mans passion for inventions, paging through his library full of books on English architecture, and absorbing his determination to improve conditions in his workers lives. When Philippe died, in 1838, his nine-year-old namesake left Indret with his parents, but as soon as Philip was old enough, he returned to take a job, unrecognized, in the factory his grandfather had designed.
These were hard years for Philip, who hoarded as much of his pay as possible to buy the books he needed for study. In time, he moved up to a job as a government clerk, but then came the bloody 1848 Paris uprising, which reduced the Fourierist movement to ashes and led to the exile of its leaders, several of whom went to the United States, where they hoped they might have a second chance to realize their utopian dream.
A strong Fourierist movement already existed there, initiated by Albert Brisbane, a well-to-do New Yorker who had caught the fever of utopianism during a visit to Paris and who had begun promoting Fouriers ideas back home in his friend Horace Greeleys New York Tribune. In a nation then undergoing a severe recession, the French dream of economic and individual freedom took root. “The rich were enticed, the poor encouraged; the laboring classes were aroused,” one veteran of the movement recalled, by Brisbanes assurance that a small experimental phalanx could be created for less than the cost of a small railroad or bank. Phalansteries soon sprang up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, while some already established communities, such as Vermonts Putney Association (later renamed the Oneida colony) and the Massachusetts Brook Farm community, integrated aspects of Fourierist theory into their routines.
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