Searching for the perfect hotel can sometimes be a challenge. Most of us want a good price and a great, safe location. We all also have our particular preferences for amenities and features, such as bed size, meal options, free WiFi, and whatnot. That said, I’m fairly certain most people aren’t specifically looking for hotels that also double as art galleries, but if you think you might be into that kind of thing, then the Carlton Arms Hotel in New York City is just the place for you!
This place is crazy, and I mean that in the best way possible. The Carlton Arms, also known as the Artbreak Hotel, bills itself as NYC’s first “art hotel”. And what exactly does that mean, you ask? Well, it means that literally every inch of this place is covered with artwork, mostly paintings, but mosaics and physical objects, too. From the ground floor to the tippy top, no bit of space has been neglected. And IT’S INCREDIBLE.
Situated at 25th St. and 3rd Ave in the lovely Gramercy section of Manhattan, the Carlton Arms presently operates as a budget motel with rooms ranging from $90-$175 a night, depending on whether you want an en-suite bathroom (and cheaper rates are available January-March). The 54-room hotel is more than 100 years old, has no elevator up to its four different floors, and definitely looks as though it’s seen better days.
But. BUT. You will get to spend your time surrounded by incredible artwork on the walls, ceilings, and maybe even in the shower! If you’re really lucky, you may even get to stay in the room painted by Banksy. Yep! Banksy was here. And so were many, many other artists over the years.
When the Carlton Arms originally opened more than 100 years ago, it mostly catered to farmers and businessmen who were in the city to conduct business. It later served as a speakeasy during Prohibition and eventually was converted to an SRO-hotel that housed welfare recipients. Over the years, its guests also included drug addicts and prostitutes, and the building fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until the ‘80s when management changed, things started to turn around, and the Carlton Arms began to attract a new type of clientele.
And said clientele were artists, some of whom were friends of the manager, who offered them work within the hotel. One of these artists painted a mural…and then another joined in…and soon after more artists were invited to leave their mark on the halls and walls of the Carlton Arms thus beginning the transformation into what you see there today. All told, more than 150 different artists have contributed their artwork to the Carlton Arms, and the hotel still accepts applications from artists today through an artist-in-residence program, which provides free housing and materials to the artists they select to paint a room.
And though it would be nice to think that once you’ve done your painting it will be there for posterity, unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case. Some of the paintings fade or paint chips or peels over time. The building is old and needs repairs and sometimes the old paintings can’t be maintained and the room will be turned over to a new artist to share his or her own vision. (However, you can still see all of the retired paintings on their website under the “Rooms” tab.)
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Carlton Arms with the New York Adventure Club. When you arrive at the hotel, it’s easy to miss because it’s just a small door on 25th St. You need to ring a buzzer to be let in and then head up the first flight of stairs, where you may be greeted by one of the two resident cats, lounging on a chair in the lobby (there is also a humorous note downstairs that asks if you find the cat down by the front door, could you please bring her back up to the lobby?)
When it was time to begin, we wound our way up the stairs to the top floor where we were able to roam the hall and then have a sneak peek of 10 different rooms. Each room was completely different than the next, and you could definitely see the variety of artistic ideas and styles used by all the artists. Some of the art was quite pretty, some was a bit odd, the rest was just very cool and interesting.
That said, if you didn’t know what this place was like and ended up staying here, you might be a bit surprised by some of the art on the walls! Apparently, some unsuspecting guests have been a little put off in the past, but it seems like most of the reviews I could find were from people who were thoroughly fascinated by the place.
And I know that WE were all fascinated! We continued through the remaining floors, each room and every hallway having a completely different look. Though we weren’t meant to visit any other rooms on the lower floors, some of the recently vacated rooms that weren’t yet made up for new guests beckoned us to take a peek. We couldn’t resist taking a look, and we’re so glad we did.
We were totally in awe throughout the entire tour because the scope of it all is just so incredible. And we were amazed how we would miss something the first time we passed it and then notice it when we walked back by–you would need to spin around a few times in each room and each section of hallway to be sure you caught all the different images and designs, on the walls and on the doors. We all loved every minute of our visit!
As for staying there as a guest, my impression of the hotel is that it’s pretty old and not in fantastic shape, but if you’re looking for a low-cost option in a fantastic neighborhood and you want to have a unique experience, the Carlton Arms is an excellent option. And if you do have a chance to stay, definitely take time to explore the entire place, peek into any rooms whose doors have been left open, and check out the shared bathrooms as well. One bathroom on the lobby level has an incredible mosaic covering the walls and another has an adorable watering can as a showerhead!
No space at the Carlton Arms has been left untouched by someone’s creative genius, so I hope you’ll make it a point to visit sometime in the future. Stay as a guest, join an Adventure Club tour, or if you’re an artist yourself, apply to paint your own room! And when you do make it to the Carlton Arms, please stop back and share your thoughts on your visit.
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Carlton Arms Hotel: 160 East 25th St. near the corner of 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10010
- There is only a very tiny awning out front, so it’s easy to miss! Ring the buzzer downstairs to be let inside.
When to Go
- Anytime! If you’re traveling to NYC in the future, check their website for availability. Their rates are discounted from January-March if you’re looking for a bargain on your next trip to NYC.
Tips for Visiting
- If you plan to stay here as a guest, definitely have an open mind! Some of the rooms are more pleasing to look at than others, so this is a place for the curious and the not-easily-offended.
- There are two cats in residence, one of whom never left its chair in the lobby. We only saw the other one briefly, but they seem to have free run of the hotel. If you’re allergic, this might not be the best place for you to stay.
- Do be sure to confirm whether your room has an en-suite bath because only about half do. That is not a surprise that you’ll want to discover upon checking in if sharing a bathroom is a non-starter for you.
- If you do stay, check out all the floors in the hotel. Each hallway is totally different, and if you’re lucky, you may be able to peek into some of the rooms that have been vacated and not yet cleaned to see what else they have on the walls.
- To see even more rooms, consider visiting on a tour with New York Adventure Club like I did! Tours of the Carlton Arms are offered several times a year.
- Finally, if you can’t get to the hotel in person, you can see photos of all the rooms through the hotel’s online gallery. Click on “Rooms” in their navigation to see all the additional floors and past rooms’ designs.