Engineer/Architect Couple Has Lived in the Chelsea Hotel for 25 Years

By Published On: June 27, 20226.7 min read

Zoe Pappas is not your average resident at the Chelsea Hotel. She is a structural engineer, not an artist — but is still creative, nevertheless.

She lives in the landmark building, built in 1884, with her husband, Nicholas Pappas, an architect. While the hotel is known for its history as the former home to artists and writers such as Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Tom Wolfe, it’s also home to people who work in the realm of real estate. Mrs. Pappas has been a structural engineer on various hotel projects around the city and beyond.

An artistic woman lays in squalor

A scene from DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Clindoeilfilms. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Chelsea Hotel is slated to fully reopen this fall after being bought by the BD Group in 2016 and being fully renovated. While most of the hotel will have various luxury hotel rooms, the Pappas are among 40 tenants who call the hotel home. They don’t live in hotel rooms, although some of the remaining residents do.

The Pappas live in a spacious one-bedroom apartment in the hotel. The hotel’s original Gilded Age architect, Philip Gengembre Hubert, designed the building with tenants in mind. There are studios, one and two-bedrooms with kitchens, and bathrooms throughout the hotel. Some of the smaller residential rooms have bathrooms in the hallway and no kitchens.

An old woman dances with a construction worker.

A scene from DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Clindoeilfilms. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Pappas may be the president of the building’s tenant association, the Chelsea Tenants Association, but she’s so much more than that. Since arriving in the U.S. as a political refugee in 1988 (before the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which called an end to Soviet-led communism), she is a character of the building who is captured in a new feature film where she shares her story and opens the door to her life.

“Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel” opens on July 8 in theaters. The film, which premiered at the Berlinale International Film Festival, follows two filmmakers, Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, as they interview the various remaining residents of the hotel. The film will also screen from June 17 to 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

An old woman leans over a balcony.

A scene from DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Clindoeilfilms. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

As the film’s synopsis explains: “The legendary Chelsea Hotel, an icon of 1960s counterculture and a haven for famous artists and intellectuals including Patti Smith, Janis Joplin and the superstars of Warhol’s Factory, is under renovation. Soon it will reopen to the public as one of New York’s most fashionable luxury hotels. Dozens of long-term residents, most in their later years, have lived amidst the scaffolding and constant construction for close to a decade.”

As she recalls, after the first month of living here in 1994, Pappas considered moving out. Once the hotel manager heard this, he told her: “Zoe! Nobody leaves the Chelsea Hotel once they have arrived!”

A woman leans back on a couch in dim room.

A scene from DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Clindoeilfilms. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Today, she looks back fondly that she has stayed. “We are its permanent residents, they didn’t throw anybody out,” said Pappas, who arrived with her pet dog, which the hotel allowed.

What makes her role in the building different is that she has a storied career working in real estate as a structural engineer. She has worked at DeSimone Consulting Engineers, and worked on several large-scale commercial real estate projects, including the Hotel Sofitel in midtown Manhattan.

Two women face the camera.

A scene from DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Clindoeilfilms. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

She worked as a project manager at the firm and was interviewed in the early 2000s for several construction publications about being one of the key women players on the project (she was responsible for the construction crew), showing that women have left a mark on typically male-dominated roles in CRE.

“I have always been interested in things connected with the arts, I have a discerning mind,” Pappas said. “I studied art, but I wanted to leave the country, so my parents suggested to me that it’s better to have something you can prove. Engineering is something you can prove.”

An ornate dining room.

El Quijote Dining Room | Photo courtesy of Eric Medsker

After Zoe and Nicholas married in 1997, they worked on a project together where she was the structural engineer, and he was an architect. The couple started their own engineering firm in 1998. They work on landmark buildings, energy code updates, facade restorations and more. Coming from the construction world, she saw in plain sight the problems with the building: “The building was left to decay, it was a disaster,” Pappas said.

But she didn’t give up on her home. “People always asked, why didn’t you move?” she recalled. “I always knew the potential for this building was there, because it was built in a civilized way, I knew that eventually, it was going to turn,” Pappas explained. “For me to walk on the iron staircase every day, it was always something I admired. Nicholas and I, we enjoy the beauty of the building, we think about the intelligence behind it.”

A radio sits next to a hotel bed.

Chelsea King Room Detail | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

The building is not haunted, Pappas said, but it does have a creative spirit. “There is a creativity here, a stimulation to become creative. I painted pictures in the Chelsea Hotel and made clay sculptures. I felt this desire, this urge to paint, to sculpt. I think it’s part of the energy.”

Another draw is the location of the hotel. “What I love is the location, direct taxis to anywhere, the theater, the cinema, the museums,” Pappas said. “After living in Los Angeles, I promised myself I would never cross a bridge or a tunnel ever again, I didn’t care about the smaller space.”

A tigerprint chair sits in a hotel room.

Deluxe Atelier | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

What makes the Pappas apartment so beautiful is that most of the furniture here was brought over from Romania in 2007. That includes family heirlooms, like cabinets and chairs in walnut, rosewood and mahogany, shipped from Transylvania, as well as an old 19th century piano, and a Singer sewing machine her grandmother bought at a fair in 1937.

Many things keep the Pappas’ here. “It’s a great iconic building to live in, it has a great history and a future,” Pappas said. “It has 8-foot-wide corridors. You’re not going to find those anywhere, not new buildings. It’s a great location, there’s a subway on every street corner. We have one restaurant, we’ll have three more, which are being constructed. It’s got what you need. We have finally got success-oriented management, we hope it goes as it keeps going.”

An ornate dining room.

The Bard Room | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

A fancy hotel room

Chelsea King | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

A purple couch in a living room.

Deluxe Atelier Living Room | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

The monogramed sheets of the Chelsea Hotel

Linen Detail 5 | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

Tigerprint chairs are in a kitchen dining room.

Pied-á-terre Kitchen | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

Golden doorknobs on a white door.

Hotel Chelsea Detail | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

An iron staircase railing.

Stair Detail | Photo courtesy of Annie Schlechter

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