Chelsea’s Limelight Building–the Church? the Nightclub? the Gym?
The northeast corner of 6th Avenue and West 20th has looked nearly the same since 1844. The building’s facade, a striking asymmetrical church, was designed by Richard Upjohn when the neighborhood was home to Manhattan’s wealthiest families. Though its Gothic revival-style exterior has hardly changed in 175 years, the stories of this Chelsea corner reveal the city’s secrets and its tendency to keep changing.
On this corner 150 years ago, you’d run into Cornelius Vanderbilt or John Jacob Astor coming out of the Church of the Holy Communion, the original congregation here. On this corner 30 years ago, there’d be thousands of Club Kids in lines around the block, and you might catch a glimpse of 50 Cent, Cyndi Lauper, or the Beastie Boys getting ready to perform. On this corner today, who do you see? What story are you telling about New York in 2019?
The evolution of this building has earned it Landmark status and notoriety as one of the most “cursed” buildings in New York City’s history. For its first 100 years as a church, the congregation grew steadily. But by the 1960s, the neighborhood was being gentrified, residents moved to other areas, and a significant amount of people stopped attending church entirely after the war. Holy Communion briefly consolidated with another congregation to save money, but they lost their lease entirely in 1976.
The Lindisfarne Association took over the space for 2 years, turning it into a cultural center hosting well-attended events in artistic, scientific, and academic fields. But maintaining the church building was expensive and ultimately dangerous; one student was attacked after class, and there were multiple attempted robberies. The operating costs were not manageable and the church went back to the control of the Parish once again.
The Parish sold the space to Odyssey House, a rehabilitation center that was much-needed in the neighborhood in 1978, but it failed after a short time due to operating costs. Odyssey House sold the space in 1983 to Peter Gatien, who planned to open the Limelight Club. This sparked varied responses. If a space that was formerly your house of worship was being turned into a nightclub, would you support it? What if the alternative was the demolition or dilapidation of the building?
Andy Warhol hosted the Limelight’s opening night party in 1983 and the club’s initial days were full of A-list celebrities, performances, and events. But the Limelight quickly became an epicenter of drug trade–ecstasy and heroin were bought, sold, and abused in the Limelight Club, and after a few years, the activities happening in this building were out of control.
Angel Melendez, a known drug dealer, was murdered and dismembered by the club’s promoter in 1994. This violent crime brought the Limelight’s issues into the public eye and in light of the murder, Mayor Giuliani doubled down on the crack epidemic. After a massive investigation by the DA’s office, accusations of running a drug ring from the club, and expenses they could not cover, the club was forced to close. It reopened under a new name from 2003 – 2007, but shut its doors permanently 12 years ago.
In 2010, the empty church building was converted into a labyrinth-like shopping center. As Chelsea became a more popular tourism destination for shopping and dining, vendors set up retail shops inside the church with the hope of appealing to an increasing consumer and residential base in the area. But because the building is a landmark, there could be no signage or advertising outside. They struggled to bring customers in. The owners tried rebranding the space as a mall called Limelight, but they ran out of money and closed in 2014.
The following year, David Barton Gym moved into the empty church. 2 years later, four David Barton locations in New York City closed at once, the space was empty once again. Today, it’s home to Limelight Fitness.
The corner of 20th Street and 6th Avenue has been depicted in books, films, and documentaries, highlighting its days as New York’s most notorious nightclub. Tourists and locals stop every day to photograph the stunning facade, and its landmark status assures us that it will be a part of Chelsea’s landscape for generations to come. Who decides which parts of the Limelight’s story are told? The church building has held a non-church enterprise for over 50 years – what other facades tell a misleading story? How does a Landmark status put limitations on a space?