When your Aunt Bess from Menominee visits New York, suggest she steer clear of the Carlton Arms Hotel. If the panhandlers outside don't give her qualms, the accommodations inside almost certainly will. The rooms have no phones or TVs, no hair blowers, and there isn't a soothing watercolor in the place. Someone has painted outlandish scenes on almost every wall and ceiling, and even on the furniture. A huge mural of monsters, snakes and a howling wolf hangs above the front desk, where an orange-haired clerk awaits guests. And if Aunt Bess happened to wind up in room 4D, there's no telling what she would think. Wall paintings of pipes, rivets, a periscope and electronic gadgets have transformed the room into a submarine, with underwater views of ancient ruins and painted mermaids cavorting on the walls of the bathroom.

It isn't the Ritz, but hundreds of young people from Europe and across the U.S. consider the Carlton Arms the hippest hostelry in Manhattan. "Who needs first class?" asks Allesandro Foti, 21, a design student from Milan. "The art is the entertainment." Indeed it is: All but 10 rooms in the Carlton Arms are splashed with flamboyant murals by young artists. And since rooms go for $29.95 to $34.45 a day, with a discount for students and foreign travelers, word of mouth keeps the place well-booked. "Totally great!" raves Tom Wolinski, 24, a student from Minneapolis. "I just wrote a three-page letter about the wild, bug-eyed guys on my wall who freak me out every time I wake up."

To achieve its cachet, the Carlton Arms underwent an innovative refurbishing starting six years ago. Built in 1890, the 54-room, four-story building had become a seedy residential hotel by the '70s, when its East 25th Street neighborhood was plagued by prostitution, drugs and crime. Then in 1981, Ed Ryan, 39, a friend of the manager, showed up to help. "The manager couldn't take all the lunacy," says Ryan. "He left, and I got his job." As residents moved out or died, Ryan cleaned up their rooms. He converted a street-level display window, the boiler room and the lobby into art galleries. Abraham Chu, a Taiwanese businessman who bought the place in 1982, saw red ink turn to black. "I knew whatever he was doing, it was good," recalls Chu. "So I said, 'Keep it up.' "

That was all the encouragement Ryan needed. By that time his staff was made up mostly of struggling artists. "We really believed that art could radically change the energy of the place," says Gil Dominguez, 40, a painter from California who helps run the hotel. In 1983 Dominguez was given free rein to paint the stairwell (there is no elevator) with nightclub scenes, car crashes and images of women from ancient mythology. Two years later Brian Damage, 29, who created elaborate disco decor at Studio 54 and Danceteria, developed the idea of muraling entire rooms. He began by giving room 7A a Heaven and Hell motif showing an abandoned New York City in the harsh, blue light of nuclear winter. Then Minneapolis artist Collette Jennings, 29, covered another room with scenes of Renaissance Venice and made the closet look like a fortune-teller's booth. The avant-garde art world is beginning to take notice. "The hotel is incredible—total environmental art," says free-lance curator Tricia Collins. "It's a testimonial to art's transformative powers."

For longtime residents who still occupy 10 rooms in the Carlton Arms, the new atmosphere is more than a facelift. "It's given me hope," says Jerry Burns, 51, who has done odd jobs around the hotel. "It keeps you alive. In a dingy atmosphere, you just give up." One resident family is paid to clean the entire building, and another occupant changes linens and towels daily. "We're not trying to get these people out," says desk clerk Nora Salazar, 23. "They're part of it all. They tell incredible stories about the old days, and travelers love them."

Ryan's renovation is so popular that there is now a waiting list of artists hoping to redo a group of rooms that will be renovated next year. While they work, artists receive free rent and supplies, and sometimes they get carried away. Brian Damage holed up for 12 weeks, obsessively revising his submarine room until Ryan finally made him stop. But the work can also pay unexpected dividends. At parties celebrating newly decorated rooms, artists mingle with collectors and sometimes get other commissions. "You really have to hustle to show in a gallery," says Christopher Walsh, 32, who painted a room with abstract cityscapes. "This is one of the few places where new artists can show work."

Not everyone gets a warm welcome at the Carlton Arms. "We don't want whiners and complainers," Ryan says. "These people who call up and say, 'What? No TV? No phone?' " He doesn't want some of his former tenants either. In 1984 the hotel regressed briefly when drug dealers infiltrated the place, but Ryan fought to regain control. "It's as if there's some force trying to creep back in," he says. "If we relax, what's taken years to build up can fall down in weeks." To make sure it doesn't, Ryan and his friends are firming up the foundation, not with mortar, but with more brushstrokes of paint.

  • Contributors:
  • Michelangelo Signorile.