Stop and admire the Chelsea Hotel’s beautiful iron balconies

There’s a lot to love about the Chelsea Hotel: the Queen Anne (or Victorian Gothic?) style, its backstory as a failed early cooperative apartment house, the enchanting main staircase and lobby fireplace, and its cultural relevance as a home for artists, writers, and free thinkers throughout the 20th century.

But there’s one feature I can’t get past: the magnificent floral-ornamented iron balconies gracing the circa-1883 building—seven rows of delicate leaves and flowers spread across the hotel’s red brick facade.

The floral motifs bring the beauty and softness of the natural world to the harsh brick and mortar cityscape of West 23rd Street.

The balconies “lend an atmosphere of charm to this high brick facade,” as the 1966 report designating the Chelsea a historic landmark put it.

What I didn’t realize after so many years of admiring the balconies is that they were made by Cornell Ironworks—whose name I’d often seen on manhole covers and cast iron buildings across Manhattan.

The company’s roots go back to 1828. But in the late 19th century, Cornell became “one of the largest manufacturing operations in New York City, employing 1,200 at its peak,” noted a historical timeline from “In the 1880s, the firm provide[d] circular stairs and ironwork for the Brooklyn Bridge and the iron base and stairways for the Statue of Liberty.”

Cornell also supplied the cast iron for many of the great department stores of Gilded Age New York City, from the A.T. Stewart store on 10th Street and Broadway to the Arnold, Constable Dry Goods establishment on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, according to Walter Grutchfield.

The Chelsea Hotel has undergone lots of big changes over the past decade or so. Recently I took a walk through the new, spiffed up lobby and public rooms. While many of the art and architectural distinctions of the interior remain, the space lacks the intentional shabbiness and artistic colony feel of the pre-renovation hotel.

But you don’t need to go inside the Chelsea Hotel to enjoy its magic. Just stand outside on 23rd Street and look at the iron balconies—works of art created by a storied city manufacturer for a hotel clientele that appreciated artistic magic.

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14 Responses to “Stop and admire the Chelsea Hotel’s beautiful iron balconies”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    I haven’t been in that part of town lately, but from your photos, it looks as though the scaffolding has finally come off! True?

  2. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    I recall the Chelsea when me and this girl tried to rent a room there in the mid1960s. ‘You have a marriage license?’ the clerk asked. Sexual frustration had collapsed in each of us as we staggered out that hotel… Doesn’t look as dowdy as it once did. Looks very elegant and clean, too.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The scaffolding is finally down, yes! And Mick, I’m surprised you were asked to show a marriage license in the mid-1960s. I guess even the Chelsea tried to avoid a rep as a place of immorality and improper behavior among guests!

      • Tom B Says:

        Funny story Mick, I had the same experience back in late 60’s. Are you still immoral and behave improper? I still try but it’s not easy anymore. LOL

    • Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

      I just live my life and the hell with the rest!

    • velovixen Says:

      You were too immoral for the Chelsea? I really must have lived a sheltered life in my youth!😉

  3. andrewalpern Says:

    Esther . . .

    I get to enjoy the Chelsea every day, merely by looking out from my living room.

    There is an additional short balcony outside the 9th-floor studio that had been lived-in for decades by Alphaeus Cole. One day is fell off and crashed down onto the sidewalk, not three minutes after I had walked past the building. I remember Mr. Cole out for a stroll in his wheelchair with his straw hat at a jaunty angle and a pleasant word for me. Fiona Davis has written a marvelous historical novel about the Chelsea titled Chelsea Girls. I included pictures and a floor plan of the Chelsea in my Dakota book.

    • Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

      I read Chelsea Girls, very nice novel, book has a nice cover too.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m envious of your Chelsea Hotel view! And thanks for introducing me to an artist I’d never heard of. I’m looking at his lovely portraits on another screen right now.

  4. Dane Vannatter Says:

    is El Quijote still open? have they left it relatively intact?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Good question: I think it’s still there. I hope it is, they made an excellent paella last time I was there!

  5. velovixen Says:

    This, from poet James Schuyler:

    “The balustrade along my balcony
    is wrought iron in shapes of
    flowers: chrysanthemums, perhaps,
    whorly blooms and leaves and
    along the top a row of what look
    like croquet hoops topped by a
    rod, and from the hoops depend
    water drops, crystal, quivering.
    Why, it must be raining, in Chelsea,

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I love it—what a find! Thanks VV for adding it to the comments section. I should have come across it and made it the focal point of the post!

  6. JustLooking Says:

    there is an interesting documentary about the redevelopment of the building and those that still live there. it’s by Martin Scorsese, called “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” on Hulu.

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