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Alchemist Transforms Breslin into Ace


Ace hotel

Avid fans of Harry Smith will recognize the name of the Hotel Breslin.  For one thing, it was one of the many roach motels he called home until he was thrown out for lack of payment. 

Allen Ginsberg reported:

Then Harry went into a funny kind of amphetamine tailspin.  He got really paranoid and got moved out of the Chelsea, I think, or expelled or something.  He couldn't pay his rent, and wound up in a series of other hotels, including the Breslin Hotel, by 1984.  But he wouldn't talk to anybody, wouldn't talk to me, maybe because I didn't supply him with money, because I was broke at the time ...

I didn't see Harry for a long while and began visiting him again at the Breslin Hotel, on 28th Street and Broadway.  Same problem, still wanting money ...

In that room at the Breslin, the whole room was taken up with shelves of books and records, then a movie editing table, and a tiny bed.  I have some photographs of that, of him pouring milk, The Alchemist Transforming Milk into Milk

In that bathroom he had a little birdie that he fed and talked to, and let out of his cage all the time.  When his little birds died, he put their bodies in the freezer.  He'd keep them for various alchemical purposes, along with a bottle, which he said was several years' deposits of his semen, which he was also using for whatever magic structures.
[ introduction to Think of the self Speaking, pages 7-8 ]

His evictions from such places must have been difficult for Smith, of course, but they're also an on-going tragedy for all of us. 

They often resulted in catastrophic losses of Harry's original artwork, as well as his inspired collections of objects much more interesting than what he kept in that freezer.  We're all somewhat impoverished by Harry's housing problems.

In a sad irony, Harry's chronic homelessness also had a small upside. As I understand it, he sometimes sold his stuff to keep a roof over his head a little while longer — typically to buyers who preserved it better than Smith could have, or would have, given that he sometimes intentionally destroyed is own artwork.

He first approached Moses Asch of Folkways Records to try and pawn his 78 collection.  Asch had the idea of instead paying Smith to edit the Anthology of American Folk Music, using Smith's own collection as its basis.

Smith later sold that 78 collection to the New York Public Library, where Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler were allowed to copy the whole thing in exchange for cataloging it.  Those bootlegs were a wellspring for the repertoire of the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the most influential bands in history. 

Anyway, point is, the Hotel Breslin is now being opened as the "gleaming new super-hip Ace Hotel," according to the Observer.  If you have enough money, you can stay where Harry couldn't. 

My wife and I love to stay in old renovated hotels — most recently, the Palmer House in Chicago and the Biltmore in Los Angeles — in part because it's possible to get some surprisingly good prices in some of these amazing places at the moment. 

Therefore, I can't hold my snout too high about the Breslin/Ace project.  I would like to stay there. 

But if you have heretofore missed the ironies that gentrification sometimes presents, the Breslin/Ace project is a good place to get up to speed.

The hotel management is hoping to incorporate some of Smith's artwork into the interior design.  They also hope to offer his pioneering abstract animated films on the hotel's pay-per-view TV system. 

Some rooms feature turntables and selected vinyl, and the management hopes to get permission to press new vinyl copies of The Anthology for the enjoyment of guests. 

( This raises an intriguing question I've been wondering about too.  Could Smithsonian/Folkways re-issue The Anthology on vinyl to the general public? 

Vinyl is back, at least among a certain segment, and I think it's probably the same segment that would love to own The Anthology on LP. 

For the 1997 CD reissue of The Anthology, Smithsonian/Folkways worked hard to approximate, as much as possible, the experience of encountering The Anthology in its original form.  Well, what better way to approximate it than to actually, in fact, reissue The Anthology in its original form?  Eh?  Hello? )

The Breslin/Ace Hotel project has been controversial, in part because there are many "legacy" residents in the building, until recently a rent-controlled apartment building. 

Some residents haven't appreciated the hassles of living in a construction zone, and some presumably just don't like hipsters, tourists, rich people, and whatnot.  There's a little uncertainty over just how well residents and guests will mix in the building.

The same investors also recently renovated the Chelsea, where Harry Smith died on November 27, 1991.