Friday, August 10, 2007

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER: The Limelight


To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

Holy Communion Episcopal Church was never meant to be the gateway to Hell. This lush Gothic style was designed in 1846 by Richard Upjohn, one of early America's great architects and creator of downtown's Trinity Church.

Perhaps Upjohn could foresee the church's future tilting towards the bizarre, as it's the first asymmetrical Gothic church in America. Think of all the uniform symmetry in most churches over 150 years old, and you'll appreciate its uniqueness.

In its prime, the toast of New York filled its pews, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor and Jay Gould. A shadow of its altruistic days can still be seen hovering over St Luke's Hospital (now St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center), which the congregation helped found. To tie this into our podcast at the beginning of the week, it was in this hospital that John Lennon died of his wounds sustained at the Dakota Apartments.

The church fell upon hard times in the new century and was eventually sold to a drug rehabilitation center. According to a bishop at the time, there was an implicit understanding that the house of worship was always meant to help the needy. Then Peter Gatien came along, and larger ironies have never existed in New York City.

Gatien was a club owner who gobbled up nightclub spaces and transformed them into branded clubs called the Limelight -- first in Hollywood, Florida, then Atlanta, and London. (He would eventually own many clubs in Manhattan, including the Tunnel, the Palladium downtown, and Club USA.) The Gothic church on 6th Ave proved too enticing -- the one in London was also in a former house of worship -- and soon Gatien turned the once reverent spot into a house of decadence.

Its labyrinthine hallways and stairwells spilled into ornately designed lounges and dancefloors. Old marble crypts sat next to rows of liquor bottles. The chapel became a VIP lounge. Upstairs, surrealist illustrator HR Giger, famous for his designs of the creatures from the Alien films, specially designed a dance floor.

However it was its occupants that made the headlines. In the late 80s and 90s, Peter Gatien and the Limelight helped foster its own buffet of self-made celebrities, the club kid, brightly colored freakshows whose only purpose was to shock and make everybody feel smaller.

King (or queen) among them was Michael Alig, an extravagent promoter of both his club, his lifestyle and himself. A protege of another nightlife maven James St James, Alig's wild parties at the Limelight were the stuff of urban legend.

Actual celebrities who frequented the club, like Eddie Murphy and Michael Douglas, were no match for Alig and his menagerie, which often included a few New York celebrities around today -- Amanda LaPore, Richie Rich, and, most famously, Rupaul and the duo Heatherette, now legitimate fashion designers in their own right.

The avarice of the early '90s would lead to the downfalls of the Limelight's main characters. Alig would be charged with murdering fellow club kid Angel Melendez. Gatien was arrested on drug charges in 1996 -- by then, the Limelight was a veritable candy store for ecstacy and 'special k' -- and in 1999 for tax evasion. Alig is in prison, serving a 20-year sentence; Gatien is in Canada, presumably forever.

The Limelight itself? After a dramatic shuttering in 2001, the club was reopened under the name Avalon, and still entertains throngs craving a thumping beat and a really expensive cocktail. The club kids are gone, but ghosts remain, as do the crypts.

You can of course catch a glimpse of the decadence in the film Party Monster, about the kooky days of Alig and the Club Kids, both in documentary and Macauley Culkin-vehicle formats. Harvey Keitel also takes a visit to the club in Bad Lieutenant.



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2 comments:

  1. Makes me miss those quivering morning afters crouched in the fetal position after too much Limelight!

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  2. Oh! Those were the days when Club USA was the place to warm up after a freezing day in our apartment. Cheers to hot totties and day glo sweatshirts!

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