WEST VILLAGE — Though a new developer is transforming the iconic Hotel Chelsea, a Carmine Street guitar maker is helping keep its soul alive.
Rick Kelly, the owner of Carmine Street Guitars, builds instruments from what he calls "the bones of old New York City" — white pine boards salvaged from some of the city's most richly storied buildings.
Kelly, a SoHo resident, acquired beams from the Hotel Chelsea a year and a half ago when a friend tipped him off that the wood was being discarded. Where others saw garbage, Kelly saw slices of history.
"The artists, Bowery bums, winos, gangs of New York — these beams saw all of that," Kelly said of the materials he's used to create his instruments.
"If they could talk, they would have some stories to tell."
Kelly, 61, scored materials from another famous west side site earlier this year — former Bedford Street speakeasy Chumley's, which was once a hangout of John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In Kelly's 42 Carmine St. shop, he turned wood from both sites into a guitar for former Chelsea Hotel resident Bob Dylan, he said.
"[Dylan] loved the combination of Chumley's body wood and Chelsea Hotel neck wood," Kelly said.
Patti Smith, Lou Reed and former Hall & Oates guitarist G.E. Smith also have guitars made from New York buildings, Kelly said.
Kelly opened a guitar shop on Downing Street in 1976 and moved to Carmine Street in 1990. He began making guitars from old wood out of necessity.
"I started collecting old wood in college because it was free," he said.
With the wood, he made Appalachian dulcimers, stringed instruments sometimes used in folk music, and sold them at craft fairs to help pay his way through Maryland Institute College of Art, where he studied sculpture.
Kelly made his first guitar with wood from a New York building three years ago, after director Jim Jarmusch renovated his loft on the Bowery and gave the wood to Kelly. He turned the wood into two guitars for Jarmusch.
"After I made that first one that was so amazing, I thought, 'I've got to keep doing this,'" Kelly said.
Reclaimed wood makes good guitars because it's already cured and seasoned, Kelly said.
"The resin in the wood crystalizes and opens up the pores for vibration, creating resonance," he said.
Kelly said he tries to make three guitars a month made of wood from city buildings, and he charges about $1,500 each.
Kelly says he's unique in building guitars from reclaimed wood with the exception of Fender, which is currently selling limited edition guitars made from recycled wood in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Telecaster.
A Fender spokesman said the company has sold guitars made of reclaimed wood for "years."
Kelly said he's amazed each time he rummages through the skeletons of history in a famous building's garbage.
"People just throw this stuff away. It blows my mind," he said.