Click here to read this article as originally published in The Daily News by Larry McShane.
Welcome to the vintage Chelsea hotel that’s second to nun.
The Leo House, staffed for decades after its 1889 debut by a Wisconsin-based order of Catholic sisters, marked its 130th anniversary this year as an affordable alternative to Manhattan’s eye-popping hotel tabs. The 81-room operation, the low-key yin to the debauched yang of the nearby Chelsea Hotel, boasts a prime W. 23rd St. location just a short stroll from the Highline, the Empire State Building and the bright lights of Broadway.
Sister Marilyn Ellickson, one of the last four nuns still residing in the venerable guest house, remains entranced by the life inside the Leo. Its charm is simple: While not your typical Manhattan hotel, The Leo House somehow remains a fairly typical Manhattan hotel — at a far less expensive price, and with free rosaries available at the front desk.
“There’s so much going on,” said Ellickson, who took a front office job at the hotel 12 years ago. “I always said you could walk outside the front door, walk one block east to Eighth Ave., then turn around and walk back. And by the time you reached the hotel, you’d have enough to write a novel.”
“A standard single room goes for $189 a night and a standard double for $239 at the self-proclaimed “Catholic guest house for travelers.” There’s a free breakfast every day except Sunday, with bacon and eggs, cups of freshly-brewed coffee and a dining room piano for adventurous guests.
One way the hotel keeps prices down: their bills include no city or state tax, since The Leo House is a non-profit affiliated with the New York Archdiocese’s Catholic Charities.
Yet the church affiliation is hardly on the radar of hotel guests. Of more than 800 reviews on TripAdvisor.com, 70% rated the accommodations as excellent or good. And those who panned the place cited room size rather than religion for their gripes.
Initially launched on the southern tip of Manhattan as a hotel for German immigrants, the Leo now welcomes guests from across the country and around the globe. A wall map is covered in tiny pins marking the homelands of the Leo’s many international visitors across the decades.
The Leo House is also gearing up for its third annual “Pope Leo XIII Award Fundrasing Gala,” set for Dec. 9 at The Yale Club. This year’s honoree is Mother Dolores Hart, who six decades ago was starring opposite Elvis Presley in “King Creole,” with tickets available through the hotel.
On a typical weekday morning, a few guests check in and others gather quietly in the lobby. Upstairs, a single visitor sits alone with his thoughts in the chapel where Mother Teresa attended Mass back on Nov. 7, 1960. Two stained glass windows filter the morning light across the 10 rows of pews.
The future saint stayed in Room 409, an appropriately spartan space with barely enough room for a bed, a night table and a chest of drawers. A crucifix hangs over the bed where she slept after signing the hotel guest book simply as “M. Teresa.”
Cheerful tour guide Ellickson wears a yellow zippered sweatshirt with matching T-shirt, black pants and a pair of sandals as she leads a guest through the eight-story building.
“People are glad to be here,” she explains of the hotel’s welcoming vibe. “It’s safe, it’s friendly. There’s a certain ambiance, and the sisters put it here. They created the whole kit and kaboodle.”
The hotel, in addition to guests, recently drew director Woody Allen to shoot some of his film “Wonder Wheel” and was featured in several episodes of “Law and Order.” And crews working at Ground Zero after 9/11 found a place to crash between shifts at the site.
Sister Marilyn said the hotel remains a gift that keeps on giving: “Every day is different. You don’t know what the day holds.
*This article was originally published in The Daily News.