The expression “in the limelight,” meaning highly visible, comes from the 19th-century theater, where it referred to a lamp that heated a chunk of white quicklime to the point of incandescent glow. It requires a lot of power and has long since been pushed into oblivion by modernity. So, too, went the history of the Church of the Holy Communion, a former Episcopal house of worship at Sixth Avenue and 20th Street, built in 1844 and landmarked in 1966, then sold off for secular use in the 1970s. It has lived a half-dozen lives since then, and today its latest was announced: The former church, dance club, department store, rehab center, study-of-philosophy center, gym, dim sum parlor, pizzeria, and crime scene is now to become a 320-seat Off Broadway theater, reports Forbes. The Broadway producer Hunter Arnold and the director Michael Arden are behind the project, and members of their team presented it to Community Board 5 last month.
The building, of course, is by far best known as the Limelight, the centerpiece of the Canadian businessman Peter Gatien’s multicity club empire. This branch, the showiest in the chain, opened in 1983, and for the rest of the decade it was, Stefonishly, New York’s hottest club. You could encounter Madonna there, or Boy George, or RuPaul. The dance music there changed with the era’s tastes — disco in the early days, techno and its offshoots later on. So did the clientele, a not uncommon situation for New York clubs, as its very fame began to doom it. Through the 1990s it grew less cool, less gay, and more inclined toward high-school and bridge-and-tunnel kids. (There were foam parties in the former chapel.) By the 1990s, Limelight had two reputations, neither of them great: “Nobody goes there anymore” and “It’s a drug den.” That latter problem effectively finished the place off, after Gatien was arrested for drug trafficking, tried and acquitted, and then finally put away for tax evasion. He did a little prison time, and was eventually deported back to Canada. Michael Alig, the Club Kid and promoter whom Gatien hired and then fired owing to his drug problem, went to jail for murder in 1997, got out in 2014, began to reconstruct his career as a promoter in a very different New York City, and died of an overdose on Christmas Eve 2020. After Limelight closed, the building did a brief stint as a second club, Avalon, which closed in 2007.
But it wasn’t just a church and then a club. Before Gatien got hold of it, the building spent a few years as the headquarters of the Lindisfarne Association, a group of academics and philosophers, and then as a drug-rehab center. Since Avalon gave up the ghost, it has been a site adrift, one of those difficult what-do-we-do-with-this-thing urban head-scratchers. It was first redeveloped as a flashy shopping experience, but its curious orientation to the street — hard-to-spot side entrance, minimal signage, forbidding old iron fence around the church — made it hard to tell when or if it was open, so it was almost never busy inside, and it never pulled in great tenants. A couple of restaurants went through as well, the most successful of which was probably the Manhattan outpost of Grimaldi’s, the Brooklyn pizzeria, but it like Gatien ran into tax issues and was seized in 2018. David Barton Gym took the central interior space in 2014 — and it, too, abruptly closed, in 2016. The best thing you can say about this dreary series of events is probably that the building got fixed up in this period; the stained glass, in particular, has been restored and looks good. On the other hand, sitting closed and derelict has done little for it or the neighborhood. I walked past it not too long ago in the middle of the afternoon and saw a disturbed man on the front steps vigorously masturbating, perhaps five feet from the sidewalk.
Whether this latest reuse succeeds will depend in part on further architectural intervention, which is limited to the interior by the building’s landmark status. Church-to-theater adaptations, though they seem obvious (both call for buildings with rows of seats and vaulted ceilings, aimed at spiritual uplift), are not without difficulty either (for example, churches do not have much back-of-house space in the apse). This plan is the work of Marvel Architects, which did good sophisticated work on, among other things, the conversion of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and the Lyric Theatre on Broadway. Its plan will put the main performance space on an upper level of the former sanctuary, using the ground-floor space as a large entrance lobby and incorporating several small bars for intermission drinks and the like. In another good sign, the two Broadway folks fronting the project have recent and substantial track records: One co-produced Hadestown, and the other directed Parade last year. Judging by the community-board conversations, the neighborhood concerns are mostly the usual — noise, drinkers, late-night activity — but given the current desolation of that building, this seems like a good swap for the neighborhood: turning a dead mall into a live theater.