The world's most rock'n'roll hotel

It ain't no Holiday Inn, but it's got art: rooms of it. Alix Sharkey spent the night at a decidedly different and remarkably cheap place in New York
You are in New York and you want to stay in the mid-town area. Never mind The Four Seasons (see right), the Waldorf-Astoria and the Royalton. You want something cheap and different.

Well, you might try the Carlton Arms Hotel, on the corner of East 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, a former flop house which could credibly bill itself as "the world's most rock'n'roll hotel". In fact, its official slogan is "The Carlton Arms - It Ain't No Holiday Inn".

What makes the Carlton so different is art. The place reeks of it. Every one of its 54 rooms - every single available surface, in fact - has been individually decorated by a different artist. The idea is simple: once a year, the Carlton invites seven young artists to stay; each is given a set budget for materials and expected to decorate his or her room, in return for free board. When all the rooms are finished, the hotel invites the public to its open day viewing party, complete with a free bar.

However, while each room represents an individual artist's work, it would be untrue to say that every room is a work of art. The management will allow you to select your own room from those available when you arrive, and you would be well advised to look at as many as possible before reaching a decision.

For instance, room 10B is painted a breathtaking scarlet, while its four-poster-style bed is surrounded with red lace netting, and strewn with red plastic roses. Only when you lie on it do you notice the mirror on the ceiling. There is a disturbing poem called "Desire" painted in large gold capitals on one wall, and the sole window is covered with black velvet. While it might be the perfect setting for a very dirty weekend, 10B is hardly the kind of place you would want to stay in alone, unless your name is David Lynch.

Up on floor D is the universe room, completely black save for luminous stars and silver architrave; 3C has purple walls, decorated with life- size silver body casts of a heavily-built woman. Also on this floor, the communal toilet (selected rooms have en-suite facilities) plays host to a magnificent mosaic, depicting Mammon toying with human souls. Meanwhile, 7A has a rather more approachable religious theme depicting angelic icons.

This place is not for the faint-hearted. Most of the rooms are dusty, poky and unsuitable for children or the elderly, while those facing Lexington Avenue are noisy. Many will baulk at the tights, bras and knickers strung out on washing lines along the ground-floor corridor, not recognising them as part of the decor.

Other common parts are equally garish - floor D is festooned with plastic fruits, bullrushes, tinsel, peacock feathers and coloured fairy lights; corridor C has a pop-art theme, while corridor B is comparatively restrained, with paint-spattered walls and sci-fi murals.

The Carlton is remarkably cheap, given its location, and the service, while basic, is nothing if not friendly. The management prides itself on an atmosphere that borders on the familial. Do not be put off by the sleazy image - despite its former reputation, there has not been a serious crime here for many years.

"I've read the original Seventies night diary," says Philippa, the English- born day manager, "and it was crazy. There were stabbings, fires caused by people free-basing coke, robberies in the hallways. But then, this district once had the highest rate of methadone clinics in the entire tri-state area."

That was then. These days, the local neighbourhood of Murray Hill, like so many areas of Manhattan, is gradually being gentrified and though it would probably pain its owner to admit it, the Carlton Arms enjoys a curious kind of respectability.

The Carlton Arms, 160 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010 (001 212 679 0680). Room rates from $44 (pounds 27.85) per night.