The day after I arrived in New York City, I got lost. I had left the First Things office for lunch and could not find my way back. Eventually, however, I spotted a church: remembering that there was a church near the office, I headed for it with a sense of relief.
But it wasn’t a church, as it happened; it was a shopping center.
So I stayed lost.
The Limelight Marketplace, formerly the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, was consecrated in 1846 and designed by the noted Gothic Revivalist architect Richard Upjohn. As a church, it holds a few distinctions, being not only the first church in New York City to offer up free pews (at the time, most churches rented pews to members of their congregation), but also hosting the first convention of black Episcopal clergymen in 1883.
But the parish, despite having the church declared a historic landmark, struggled to support itself and eventually merged with two other parishes and deconsecrated the church in 1976. They leased the deconsecrated building to the Lindisfarne Association, an offbeat literary and educational non-profit whose members included Wendell Berry, Elaine Pagels, and Robert Bly.
But the Lindisfarne Association could not support the building either, and the property ended up back in the hands of the parish in 1979. So this time they sold it to the Odyssey House, a charity for rehabilitating drug addicts. But Odyssey House couldn’t hold on to the property either—it seems real estate in Manhattan has always been pretty hard to afford—so in 1983 the Church of the Holy Communion was sold once again, this time to nightclub mogul Peter Gatien, who renamed the building the Limelight. And it’s as the Limelight, the nightclub, that the building is best known.
Piecing together the history of the building, one notices the care with which the congregation disposed of it, even after it had been deconsecrated: a literary association and a charity for drug addicts are thoughtful choices, meant to keep in mind that the building was designed to uplift the soul. Probably, they could not have imagined that not only would it become a nightclub, but one shut down several times for drug trafficking and eventually implicated in an extraordinarily brutal and pointless murder.
The Limelight was eventually renamed the Avalon and then closed altogether, and the church sat empty for three years before reopening as the Limelight Marketplace. Whether or not the new owners will have any more luck with the place remains to be seen.
There must be many deconsecrated churches in New York City—although nobody seems to have made a directory of them, so it’s hard to say for sure. There’s no guide entitled My Year Wandering Through Deconsecrated Churches. Probably the subject would not be very interesting: once there was a church here, and now there isn’t; just the shape of it remains.
In his poem “Church Going,” that excellent atheist Philip Larkin stops at an empty country church, seeking—something. He doesn’t find it. Aware the church is empty more often than not, he wonders: “when churches fall completely out of use/what shall we turn them into . . . ?” And who shall be the last to enter the church knowing what it was? Those who fetishize some aspect of its past—like architecture enthusiasts, antique fanatics, people with sentimental memories of their childhood; and those like himself, too, seekers of something.
Larkin had too great a sense of the sacred, perhaps; he thought that churches would either be made into museums or left to decay or avoided as “unlucky places.” Even when they were left behind, he assumes they will retain a special significance. That one might set up house in one, or run a business out of it, doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.
At the Limelight Marketplace, you can buy yourself something to eat, get a drink from the Cana Wine Bar, purchase jeans at a specialty store called Cult of Individuality. Or so they said on their website; in the end, after some hesitation, I didn’t go in.
A deconsecrated church is just a pile of stones, I guess, no different from any other. It’s not wrong to live or work or do business in that space, or sacrilegious; and yet, the space is too full of its past. I can never get used to them; I walked past a church that had been made into an apartment building every day for almost two years, and I never did stop feeling a little surprised.
Back in 1976, when the Church of Holy Communion was deconsecrated, they covered up some of the reminders that the church had once been a holy place. According to the Marketplace’s website, as part of transforming the building into a “Festival of Shops,” these details were restored as “historically significant.”
Well—yes, in one way. But really, they’re only significant insofar as they aren’t historical, and only historical insofar as they aren’t significant. And that is the trouble with deconsecrated churches; they mean too much, even when they no longer mean anything at all. As Larkin says:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Perhaps they should all be torn down.
B. D. McClay is a graduate of St. John's College and a junior fellow at First Things. She has been published in The American Conservative and is a regular contributor to the St. John's College student blog, Johnnie Talk.