It can be argued that only in the repurposing of architecture can the lines between commerce, religion and politics be truly contested. In suburbia, Wal-Marts and big box stores have been converted into evangelical megachurches. The connection between commerce and religion is not only isolated to the retrofitting of built structures, but writers also frame the megachuch phenomenon in commercial terms. For example, “People are leaving the corner ‘Mom and Pop’ church for the giant Wal-Mart church down the road.” (The Doors of the Church are Closed, Dana Carson). The converse is also true–advertising strategies of Wal-Mart have been described using religious language. Just last year, Retailing Today announced that Wal-Mart was “launching a plan to activate its shoppers into ‘conversion consumers.”
Right here in New York, a church on 20th st. and 6th ave. has served as religious institution, night club (2 incarnations: Limelight and later, Avalon), weekend market and now, a forthcoming retail location. What began as the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion built 1844-1850 by Richard M. Upjohn, architect of Wall Street’s Trinity Church, later became the locus of torrid criminal behavior. A club promoter murdered and dismembered one of Limelight’s resident drug dealers. Coming of age in New York during the ’90s, I can personally attest to both the myth and the reality of megaclubs like Tunnel, Exit (now Terminal 5) and Limelight.
The church is built in the Gothic Revival style and the medieval details once referenced the ornamentation of row houses nearby (since demolished). It avoided a similar fate because its last minister petitioned for Landmark status. Now that the structure is surrounded by big box stores such as Filene’s Basement, Bed, Bath & Beyond and the Container Store, it is only appropriate that it’s next reincarnation will be as a retail store. Today the site is marked by graffiti, construction, and the spotlights that once lit up the exterior of the club at night. And if you’re lucky, you will meet “Battle Star Richard,” a WWII vet who sometimes sets up shop with a variety of eccentric trinkets and will recount for you in beautiful and informed prose the history of Martha Washington, Adolf Hitler and his experience with Jacqueline, a French dominatrix in post-war France.
All photos by Michelle Young