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NEW YORK: Hotel is not for the fainthearted or the humor-free

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MY friend Vicky had checked into the Carlton Arms first, so on arrival I worked my way up the black lacquered stairs to the second-floor lobby and asked the manager for our room number.

"She's in 9A," he said without looking in the books. "Make a right at the end of the hallway."

I walked through hallway A, with its slanted floor and crooked walls and knocked on the door of our room.

Then I heard it: BANG!

"Hello?" I said through the door. "What are you doing?"

BANG!

"Hold on," Vicky said from inside the room.

BANG! BANG!

Puzzled, I thought to myself, "What the …?"

Vicky opened the door and said, "Hi! I don't know what that is either. It's in the bathroom."

The manager explained they were having trouble with the pipes and someone was going to check the boiler to let the air out.

The banging never went away. Every couple of hours, we were treated to a two-minute pipe concerto. It woke us up several times each night, but we didn't really care.

There is something about the Carlton Arms that makes you accept it as it is, shortcomings and all — like that comfortable pair of slippers you can't throw away, even though they're full of holes.

This hotel is not for everyone. The ambience is funky, but the building is old and tired. The décor is amusingly goofy, but the plumbing and electrical systems are a little scary, with pipes and wires on full display. The employees are charming and polite, but there's no room service and no one turns down your bed.

The supply closet is always open, and no one frowns when you take what you need. The water temperature in the showers is unpredictable — be prepared for sudden bursts of hot water — yet, it's the quirks that make this hotel special.

You need a sense of humor to appreciate it, but that could be said for all of New York City. Plus, in this town, $100 for a double with a private bath is a deal.

Charm trumps convenience here, so don't expect televisions or phones in the rooms. Supplemental padlocks are issued with each set of room keys, and most rooms don't have private baths.

Despite its flaws, the Carlton Arms offers something most hotels don't: It feels like home, albeit a very strange one.

Flophouse turns artists' canvasTHE Carlton Arms is just north of the Gramercy Park area, and the Empire State Building is a 20-minute walk.

The hotel was built in the 19th century — records date as far back as 1868 — and it remained a respectable establishment until well into the next century. By the end of the 1960s, things had taken a turn for the worse, and the Carlton Arms had become a flophouse.

The turnaround came in the early '80s when a new manager took over and invited several of his artist friends to work at the front desk.

One of them painted a series of murals in the staircase; another created the submarine room, marking the start of a new chapter in the hotel's colorful history. Several more artists followed suit, and the idea to transform the whole building was born.

Today, every hallway and each of the 54 rooms has its own theme. Even after a night of partying, you would not confuse your floor with another.

Almost every square inch of this place, floor to ceiling, is covered with art. Styles and themes vary widely. Some rooms are painted in peaceful, muted tones; others — with screaming colors and wild patterns — will set off the visual-overload alarm. Themes are as varied as ancient Egypt and modern-day space travel; the techniques include paper collage as well as plaster casts of human bodies.

Because Vicky and I grew up in a quiet blue-collar neighborhood of Hasselt, Belgium, we wanted front-row seats to the big-city action. We asked for a room on the street side so we could see the never-ending stream of cabs and hear police and fire sirens.

Our bright room, where a mural of fairy-like creatures, flowers and ivy adorned the turquoise and ochre walls, was a good match for us. Right outside our window, we could see the green sign of the pub downstairs.

The lobby, supervised by Tuxedo and Charlie, the hotel's resident cats, has mismatched chairs, an old TV that has been converted into a fish tank, and one of those tacky electric fireplaces. No matter the season, multicolored Christmas lights provide a welcoming glow.

I especially liked the adjacent kitsch-crammed office with its golden Elvis bust and a baseball bat decorated with the words: "Rent is due, please."

It's a great place to plop down with Tuxedo and a drink and start a conversation with another guest or one of the managers.

That's how I met Herbert, an Englishman who prefers to go by H. He's such a beloved regular that the managers allowed him to decorate the communal bathroom on the fifth floor.

Forget everything you learned from IKEA about bathroom functionality, and picture a room where every flat surface is covered with toys, matchbooks and trinkets, all neatly displayed behind plexiglass in bright orange casing.

At the Carlton Arms, everyone shares. Guests offer one another coffee, managers share their food or lend guests a few bucks for a cup of tea or a pack of cigarettes. More than once, while I was camping out in the office, I was offered a slice of pizza or a drink.

As I was chatting with night manager Hugo Ariz late one night, a woman with bleached blond hair and way too much makeup walked in and started waving a $100 bill. "I'm just in from L.A.," she chirped, "and I want the biggest and best room in the house."

She kept waving the money as Hugo explained that he had only a small room with a shared bath. "Oh, forget it then," she said, then turned around and walked out.

It was in that office that John Ogren, who has been the manager of the Carlton Arms for 19 years, shared some of the hotel's many stories with me.

Tales from the pastWITH its cheap rates and flamboyant appearance, the Carlton Arms attracts its share of "crazies," as John likes to call them. One woman was convinced the hotel had aliens. John tried to reassure her but gave up when she brought some pennies and a paper clip to him and insisted that this was all the proof he needed.

Some guests can't quite deal with the hotel's unconventional ways. One couple was dismayed to discover a cigarette butt in their ashtray when they checked in. "This is a catastrophe," the woman told one of the managers, who replied: "No, the Holocaust was a catastrophe. This is a mild annoyance."

Such situations are not unusual, John says. People regularly book rooms but decide not to stay once they see the hotel. He thinks incomplete or unrealistic reviews are to blame.

"When people see the words 'trendy' and 'hip,' they think of something more glamorous than this," he says.

Most people who manage to stay one night usually feel comfortable staying longer, but for some, the first impression is just too much. John's advice to those people: "Go to a real hotel."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

N.Y. with a twist

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to JFK is available on American, United, America West and Delta; connecting service (change of plane) is available on America West, Continental, Northwest, Delta, American, United and Independence. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.

To La Guardia, connecting service is available on

United, Continental, American, Delta, Northwest, AirTran and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.

To Newark, N.J., nonstop service is available on American, Continental and United; connecting service is offered on America West, US Airways, Continental and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $268.

STAYING THERE:

Carlton Arms Hotel, 160 E. 25th St., New York, NY 10010; (212) 679-0680 or (212) 684-8337, http://www.carltonarms.com or e-mail artbreakhotel@aol.com. No phones or televisions in the rooms. Internet service is available in the lobby from 8 a.m. to midnight. Doubles from $85.

— An Moonen

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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