HOTEL STORIES: Revisiting Ye Olde Carlton Arms, the hotel with art (literally) on the walls

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:55

    On East 25th Street, near the corner of 3rd Ave., is the entrance to [Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel], a one-of-a-kind hotel with a history that's linked with its radically changing neighborhood. A locked gate that you have to get buzzed past leads upstairs to what has to be New York City's most unique and colorfully charming and cozy, albeit funky, places to stay.  With 54 rooms (about half of them with shared baths) at some of the cheapest prices you'll find in Manhattan (starting at $80 a night) the Carlton Arms is attractive not only to the budget-conscious traveler but also to art-loving guests who stay at this special East Side hotel - a place whose room and hallway walls are adorned with all kinds of art including paintings, collages, sculptures and straight-out big ole graffiti burners. It's inspired at least one book, [Hotel Stories](, by Mike Tyler, and there will be a book release party for the collection of stories on Feb. 29 at the hotel.

    Some of the artists who have contributed to the Carlton's walls include Banksy, Andre Charles, Paco Simone, Garance, Darik Solarski, Venus and Jim Belgere.  The walls of hotel's Room 10C were recently turned over to the artists BilliKid, Elisha Cook Jr. CERN and photo-journalists/collagist Jim & Karla Murray. That's when I first stumbled upon, and was enamored with, the Carlton Arms and had the opportunity to talk with its ever-engaging manager, John Ogren.

    What's the history of Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel and how did it transform into the art hotel it is today? JOHN OGREN: The current administration has been here since circa 1982 and, personally, I have been here since 1986. Before that, it was a scary crap flophouse typical of this neighborhood in the late '70s and early '80s. Its clientele were predominately old people who were housed here at the city's expense, welfare families, drug dealers and hookers.

    The hotel was a particular favorite of the transvestite working gals. And these were not the glamour girls of recent drag queenity! These were guys with lipstick, eye shadow, a Woolworth wig and a miniskirt. And shaving was optional. We also had the occasional Euro tourist up for a real NYC adventure.

    Our change was a gradual one and one that correlates with the changing 'hood around the hotel. It too was depressed and desperate until Baruch College (right next door) did some major renovations to their campus and to some abandoned buildings nearby. Now all the old S.R.O. [single room occupancy welfare hotels] are gone, replaced with upscale condos and hotels. Now it is a pretty upscale neighborhood, convenient and safe.

    But originally how did the idea for doing art installations come about? Eddie Ryan was the first manager and he took over when it was a depressing welfare hotel. The staff were frieds of his, many artists and musicians from the East Village. As folks died or moved out the rooms had to have something done so the staff added their own touch. Eddie would say that you could hang a tire on the wall and this act alone made it looked like someone cared. The project took off from there. Brian Damage was the first to paint an entire room and bathroom. An Atlantis scene. Circa 1985. It still exists but sadly he does not.

    Tell about the unique art aspect of the hotel and the vibe that the hotel walls immediately gives off? Well we strive to keep the Carlton Arms experience unique to New York City. The key to this end is the staff and the artists. It's important that people here - staff, guests, artists "get it" whatever "it" is.  We have had a variety of artists here. And over the years the art has expressed the mood of the hotel and also the area. Beginning with simple drawings on the wall, to the disturbing characters of East Village's Helen Oliver and the disconcerting brilliance of Brian Damage to 6A "the abortion room. Taking us to present with Daout/Henry Stuffed animal room and our most current Karla and Jim Murry's? Historical review and documentation of East Village graffiti art and BilliKid current interpretation of the genre. We have been able to see artists grow and advance in our 25 years the most breathtaking is that of Banksy. We knew him when he was just beginning and he is one of the kindest, funniest, genuine, and genuinely talented artist I know. And now he is selling his work for hundreds of thousand of pounds (sterling). There are other success stories and very few failures.

    I notice on your website you describe the art as "graffiti," but as I see from walking around the hotel, it is much broader than that. What are the limits you place on artist doing work? We embrace any art form. The only thing I ask artist to take into consideration is that "people sleep here." And upkeep. There are very few rooms that I have enjoyed re-doing and we do our best to keep them up but sometimes after 3 or 4 years the kindest most respectful thing to do is start over. Murals are much easier to maintain that installations.

    What has the response been from artists to the concept? We have many applications so artists are generally excited about the idea. No one is forced. I don't care how talented you are we need to be able to get along with you. We also run a hotel so the artists really need to be able to take care of themselves and most often they do. We don't respond well to demands but are always willing to help. The success of the project is mutually beneficial.

    And what about the overall art community's response - namely art appreciators and collectors? Mostly very positive. I think we are better know and appreciated in Europe. Heidi Klum has been a great supporter of the hotel. As has Dan Bern. We have had many articles written. On occasion the YMCA takes group tours of the hotel.

    And what about casual hotel guests, tourists to New York, who stumble upon here. What kind of surprised reactions have you gotten? Great question. Some have been horrified and left and some have been horrified and stayed. If they can manage to stay one night, they are fine and turn out loving it. We had a Norwegian woman here a few years ago and she was greatly fearful and we tried to find her another place (we don't mind doing that as long as they are not insulting) we could find nothing for her. So she ended up staying and now loves the place and is one of our greatest supporters. We had a French couple staying here upon checking into the room they found a stubbed out cigarette (pre smoking ban) in the ashtray. They stormed into the office and told a staff member that "this is a tragedy" the staff member calmly responded "The holocaust was a tragedy, this is a minor annoyance which we can quickly fix." They calmed down.

    Do you have some rooms with no art - just in case people don't want it? They have some at the Holiday Inn. We do give people a choice of rooms and they can choose the least offensive to their delicate sensibilities.

    Do guests, upon seeing graffiti and art everywhere, ever feel free to tag up their room themselves? No. Surprisingly guests are very respectful. Though we did have one young guy check into 4C - a room constructed by Julius Klein and Rakin Leaves. He seemed completely respectable but upon his checkout we found that he had removed every single piece of art and paper and screws and wood from the walls and neatly piled them against the wall. There was also a 3 foot ceramic owl that we later found on the roof. I don't know what he was on but I need some for house cleaning day.

    How long does the art usually last? Six months is probably the shortest, to 26 years.

    Your rates to stay here are really good, especially for Manhattan. Will they stay that way for a while? Because of the sort of people we want here we try to keep the prices low. We tend to go up 10% every 2-3 year but now with the dollar being worthless we may have to raise it a bit more often. We have 54 rooms about half with their own bath. We are often full, especially if you want private bath one should reserve two months in advance.

    I had heard about you maybe opening another hotel in Brooklyn. Is that correct? As the next natural move we would like to open a gallery, not a hotel, in Brooklyn or Astoria.  We have a couple of spaces stacked out. We know so many artists and they like to work on their art but not promote it. We would like to be a resource for the business, promotion and displaying of art.

    Any special plans for the hotel in the future? We just hope it's not torn down.


    YE OLDE CARLTON ARMS HOTEL is located at 160 East 25th Street (near 3rd Ave.). It has 54 rooms, about half of which offer their own bathrooms. For those advance booking (up to two months) is required. Rates are affordable ranging from room for one (without bath) for $80 a night to a room for four (with bath) for $180 a night. For full details best to either call 212-679-0680 or visit the website: or email