Doors from the Legendary Chelsea Hotel are Auctioned Off

When Alysa Wakin and Jim Siewert started renovating their home in Connecticut, they didn’t know they would end up adding a piece of 20th century history to the decor. But when they heard on the radio that 52 doors from the Chelsea Hotel in New York would be auctioned, they decided to show up at the Ricco/Maresca gallery in Chelsea on Thursday evening to make a bid.

The couple didn’t just need two new doors in their house; they wanted to bring home the allure of a legend.

Hundreds of people stormed the gallery rooms to see the 52 doors displayed with a roundup of the famous artists that had once lived behind them at the Chelsea, a 19-century building on West 23rd Street that became a refuge for artists across decades — Joni Mitchell, Mark Twain, Brian Jones, Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Tennessee Williams, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Dylan — a crowd as diverse as the one that showed up at the gallery, each person bearing a different motive to open a door on the past.

“It’s a place we know and love, and this is history,” said Siewert. “How can you not want to own a piece of that?”

As the auction began, around 8 p.m., a couple dozen people sat on folding chairs in the gallery’s front room, before a screen where a picture of each door was paired with a black-and-white one of the room’s famed tenant. About a hundred more people crowded the rest of the space, some waving their bidding cards to be seen. The room erupted in applauses as the most expensive doors were sold – Bob Dylan’s, for $125,000, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen’s, for $106,250, and Andy Warhol’s, for $65,625. Jim Morrison’s door stopped at $8,000. Some of the hotel’s front doors were sold for $1,300 and up.

The lavish profusion of bids was interrupted before the selling of the last door, when a man in a cowboy hat, khaki shirt and dark glasses walked up on stage. “The hotel was founded on a utopian principle: kindness, cooperation, worth,” he said. “The symbol of what this represents to the world is that a community like that can exist.”

The man was Jim Georgiou, who found the doors and brought them to auction. Defined by those who know him as selfless, he spent the last six years doing research about the 52 doors, which he found, abandoned, as the Chelsea Hotel started undergoing its six-year-long renovations. He catalogued them and contacted Guernsey’s, the auction house that organized the sale, about 10 months ago, said Arlan Ettinger, Guernsey’s founder. Georgiou did it all, while living on the streets, selling records to cover his basic expenses.Georgiou’s cousin, Maria Nadel, still remembers the moment he called her after finding the doors as they were ready to be discarded. “He decided that if he would ever sell the doors, he would give a bit to the homeless,” Nadel recalled. He was true to his word. Half of the auction’s proceeds will indeed go to City Harvest, a food bank.

Georgiou said that he had approached the auction house with no expectations, and that he had no expectations about the way the evening would go. But when he was informed that the door to Bob Dylan’s room had sold for $100,000, he erupted in a “Yes!”. He had lived in that room, too.

Some of those in attendance didn’t come to buy, just to show their support to the community.

The Chelsea Hotel still hosts long-term residents in some of its apartments—and many of them  and some former residents were in the crowd. They recognized each other and caught up about the latest news from the hotel and the neighborhood, moving between the hanging doors like hosts at a house party.

Andrew Rye, a Chelsea-born psychologist, lived in the Chelsea Hotel with his musician parents when he was a child in the 1980s. He remembers that time fondly, though the grown-ups at the hotel used to tell him that the rooms and corridors were haunted. “It was an extraordinary period,” he said. “Every evening you’d have a guitar player or a banjo player coming into our apartments and playing music.”

Another one-time resident, Elizabeth Pugh, a playwright, actor, and singer-songwriter, inspected a door to see if it belonged to her former apartment. She wasn’t sure. Her friends, Ed Hamilton, a writer, and Debbie Martin, a board member of the neighborhood preservation association Save Chelsea, currently live on the eighth floor at the hotel. “Our door is still on the hinges, ‘cause they haven’t thrown us out yet,” joked Hamilton.

Some residents in the past years have taken on a legal battle to maintain their rent stabilization in the face of increasingly aggressive propositions by the owners to make condos out of the hotel units. To residents like Ed Hamilton and Debbie Martin, the door auction mirrored the “destruction” of the hotel, as Martin put it. “It’s great that the doors were saved, but the rooms got destroyed, that’s what was really important,” she said standing next to a door that used to be close to hers and Hamilton’s apartment.

Zoe Pappas, a long-time resident and president of the Chelsea Hotel tenants’ association, has a different point of view. “People shouldn’t be disappointed [that some rooms were torn down],” she said. “They were full of mold, cockroaches, mice.”

As the event wound to an end, winners were arranging to have the doors transported to their new home. Olivia Gazzarrini, an Italian filmmaker and concert promoter, claimed the door she had won in a soft but excited voice.  “I made it,” she said in Italian. “I won Jimi Hendrix’s.”

The door will be shipped to Florence, Italy. A friend of Gazzarrini’s back home sent her to the auction on her behalf, and Gazzarrini is sure that the door will be in good hands from now on, and that all the hotel’s “residual energy,” as she called it, will be released.

“We grew up listening to The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and these two, Jim [Morrison] and Jimi kept bouncing around in our minds,” she said, “so we made our decision to go for one of them.” She paid $13,000 for the door.

Meanwhile, the Jim who found the doors (with a small ‘D’,) Georgiou, was among the last to leave the gallery, thanking everybody with a sweet smile, and ambling out into the Chelsea night, his dark glasses still on.