Finding the Light; Limelight’s Church to Capitalism

A building’s structure creates certain expectations. A 50-story glass curtain wall building conjures up ideas of the office work that must go on inside. Conversely, a small country home invokes ideas of domestic life. A church, particularly one in the recognizable Neo-Gothic style, has a structure so iconic that nobody, religious or not, can mistake it for anything but a place of worship. When I first came across the Limelight Marketplace at 656 6th Avenue at the corner of 20th Street, and saw inside not an altar and pews but an array of shops, I was quite taken aback.

Originally called Church of the Holy Communion, the architect of the church was Richard Upjohn, who famously designed the Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan. In the 1970s, the church was deconsecrated and re-purposed first as a drug rehabilitation centre and later as a nightclub, which ironically became notorious for drug use. In May 2010, the building was re-purposed yet again as the Limelight Marketplace. Developer Jack Menashe hired a design team lead by James Mansour to transform the building into a three-story indoor shopping space based on European modes of shopping. It is now called “A Festival of Shops” and features over 60 specialist boutiques selling apparel, accessories and gourmet food.

If John Ruskin, who attached strong moral ideas to Gothic architecture, had seen this church’s reincarnation, there is no doubt that he would have been disgusted. I originally attempted to critique the Limelight Marketplace’s re-design by how tastefully and respectfully have they considered the architecture while the transformation was conducted, without too any religious or moral associations. But, even though I am not a religious person, I found those aspects are impossible to separate. Its former purpose as a church completely informs how the interior is read. The interior’s overly glossy atmosphere not only seems overbearing, which isn’t in keeping with their goal to feel like a European market, but becomes particularly uncomfortable when your consider it as a former place of worship.

The Brownstone exterior still has all its recognizable Gothic features intact: stained glass windows, lancet windows frames. The only exterior adornments are the black and white cloth signs that hang from the building and an 8 inch plaque right of the door. Jack Menashe had sought 13 signs for the exterior but the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee allowed only 8. This restriction might explain the two enormous free standing signs, each featuring one half of the site’s logo, placed on the sidewalk on both sides of the door. The circular logo’s pattern has a flower-like pattern has taken been taken from the window above, so before I even entered I expect that the marketplace is using the building as a unique sell-point, instead of trying to ignore it.

Customers enter through the original pointed red wooden door, where a layer of pearl white has been painted on the inside. This white paint is the first indication of the gloss that has been applied throughout the building. Through this door is an alcove with the first of many decadent chandeliers inside the building. The store’s floor plan hangs on the wall to the right. This means there is a large extension on the left-side of the church, which now houses the food emporium. The rows of stores are laid aside both sides of the church and a collection of shoe and candy stores at the back. The two upper levels, which include jewellery stores and spa area, protrude over all these stores like large balconies. These levels are accessible by narrows stairs at the rear of the church. The food emporium is not visible from the main entrance but begins behind the candy store and continues through to an extension on the left side of the building. Gothic churches are typically laid out in a cross shape but the church’s first reverend, Rev. Muhlenberg asked Richard Upjohn to include design elements that were more in keeping with Roman Catholic churches so this extension was added.

A shiny black and white marble floor begins in the alcove and continues throughout the ground floor in a checkered pattern. A long red carpet has recently been added for the holiday season, either to give it a more “Christmasy” feel or to make customers like celebrities. The first thing that strikes you upon entering is how bright the interior is, quite a feat considering churches are notoriously dark spaces. The large lights hanging from the ceiling and banisters decorated in fairy lights reflect off the Gothic features that have all been painted a bright white using the same white pearl paint on the front door. The ceilings have been kept dark to contrast with the glossy white Neo-Gothic flourishes but also include some sections of hot pink making the interior look like a Barbie’s Dream Church. There is a collection disco balls hanging at different levels from the centre of the ceiling, perhaps recalling its former status as a disco. There is an abundance of chandeliers throughout the space, which begin to feel quite excessive as you move through the interiors.

As you walk through the nave, down what would normally be the church’s aisle, there are a number of high-end boutiques selling perfumes, soaps and books to your left and right where there would normally be pews. Each store is encased in its own arched frame, either in white or light pastel. The building’s overly glossy finish is in conflict with its goal to appear like a traditional European market. The interior basically has a suburban mall aesthetic, albeit on a smaller scale, within a church casing.  The interiors generally improve as you move away from the centre. The ‘Le Pain’ cheese shop at the back of the store, past the now-candy covered transept has darker interiors, red brick walls and exposed wooden beams, and feels like the most genuine representation of a European market within the store. The Gourmet Room has a cream tile floor and less sparkling chandeliers and thus feels much less over-bearing. The ugliest part of the interior is the stairs at the back of this food court that lead to Tina’s Attic where the revolting lime green exposed brick wall and an enormous orange sign surrounded by Las Vegas style lights.

A bright array of candy in every color, shape and size, attracts you under a pink jellybean encrusted arch and inside the It’Sugar store at the apse of the church. It is difficult to tell if this was an intentional decision to place a candy store at the back of the church where the congregation would normally receive the host or ‘body of Christ’ during a church service, but I find it surprising that nobody thought to point that out. The art deco-style frame surrounding the store is topped with a large ‘S’ with a wings and devil horns pattern extending out of it which is not only a cliqued logo design, but inappropriate considering its setting.

As I begun to ascend the first set of narrow stairs to the upper levels, I was distracted by some artwork hanging in the Orbit Gallery Space in my eye line. The “Heavenly bodies” collection featured four pin-up girls with Bettie Page hairstyles, huge breasts in animal print bra and knowing, seductive stares surrounded in a flames motif. Hang on, the flames of hell and half naked women in a former church? Heavenly bodies? Surely, this is not a coincidence. I don’t condone artistic censorship in a gallery setting, but there is something in this juxtaposition that I feel goes beyond the realms of taste. And the piece itself is cheap and tacky enough that I cannot defend it on artistic merit.

Design is not just about decoration, it is also a curatorial process. Because the Limelight Marketplace’s planners had very little control over the building’s exterior and layout, the decisions made about the interior become increasingly important. The white painted arches clash with the historical stained glass windows. The Hunter shoe store wall has kept the original stone carving detail and uses it as decorative element to emphasis the shoe rack. For most of the stores, their position in the church is like a decorative gimmick they enjoy referencing through their logos, products and layout, which if it isn’t inappropriate, it is at least tacky.

You can landmark a building’s structure but you can never “landmark” its function. Is it acceptable to have a market in a Catholic Church because churches have traditionally held markets on church grounds? Would a shopping mall be appropriate in a Synagogue? Would a sex shop be appropriate? Since now repurposed churches are becoming increasingly common, it is worth reflecting if there is ever a line that can be crossed in regards to appropriateness.    This is an ethical or a taste issue more than an architectural issue so I can’t give a definitive answer for every person. But for me, Limelight’s glossy white painted Gothic arches, tacky stores and inappropriate choices are irksome and often cross that line.

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