Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Church of the Holy Communion

Perhaps no Manhattan structure has been so influential in architectural, social and ecclesiastical advances as Richard Upjohn's wonderful Church of the Holy Communion on 6th Avenue at 20th Street.

In the first half of the 19th Century the Episcopal Church was still predominant among the Manhattan denominations and parishioners either rented or purchased their pews, a practice that bothered John Rogers.  He envisioned a church where the rich and poor could worship side by side.  After Rogers' death his sister, Mary A. C. Rogers, sought to fulfill his dream -- a "free church."

She turned to her brother-in-law, the Episcopal priest William Augustus Muhlenberg, for guidance.  Muhlenberg was a progressive-minded thinker who immediately took up the cause.  The land was purchased and architect Richard Upjohn was commissioned to design the church while he worked on his plans for the new Trinity Church downtown.

Upjohn produced a quaint, Gothic-revival building in the style of an English country parish church -- the first of its kind in the U.S.  Completed in 1846 and built of irregular brownstone blocks, its assymetrical shape and crennelated bell tower along with the small front yard and side garden were picturesque -- especially with the addition in 1853  and 1854 of the charming Sister's House to the north and the Rectory to the east.  The building sparked an architectural trend throughout the country.

While the neighborhood was essentially undeveloped at the time of the church's dedication, early members included such notable New York names as Vanderbilt, Astor and Gould.  From here, Muhlenberg continued his ground breaking ideas.  According to a December 12, 1885 article in The Churchman, the church was "...the first free church in this country, the first to have daily Morning and Evening Prayer, the first to have Holy Communion weekly, the first to have early Christmas and Easter celebrations, the first to decorate the chancel with flowers on festival days, the first to establish a boy choir, the first in the whole English speaking church to introduce a sisterhood, for its sisterhood antedates those of England."

Photograph NYPL Collection

What The Churchman failed to mention was that Muhlenberg also introduced medical care for the indigent, needlework programs for unemployed women, holiday dinners for the needy, trips to the country for poor boys, and the founding of a charity hospital, St. Luke's Hospital, in the Sister's House.  The sisters were dedicated to nursing and training orphaned girls for domestic service.  In an effort to help educate the poorer of his parishioners, Muhlenberg amassed a huge collection of books which later became the basis of the Mulhlenberg Library on 23rd Street.

Photograph NYPL Collection

In 1883 the church, now surrounded by the grand emporiums that made up The Ladies' Mile, hosted the first convention of black Episcopal clergymen.

By the middle of the 20th Century the neighborhood around The Church of the Holy Communion had changed from opulent department stores to commercial and industrial businesses.  The cast iron emporiums now housed factories and warehouses.  The number of parishioners and the financial situation of the church dwindled.  To head off what he feared could be the destruction of the building, the rector pushed for and was granded landmark status in 1966.  Ten years later the church was abandoned and deconsecrated.

In a move that would probably have pleased Augustus Muhlenberg, the venerable church building was purchased by the Odyssey Insitute and used as a drug rehabilitation center. 

However the Institute sold it in 1983 to Peter Gatien who opened the Limelight disco in the church, beginning a period of depravity including drug trafficking , reported sex rooms in the Sister's House, and a connection with the 1996 murder and dismemberment by Michael Alig of Angel Melendez, a regular drug dealer at the club.  The Limelight was closed down by police that year.

Another club, Avalon, opened in the former church for a short period before the building sat empty and neglected again until Jack Menashe renovated it as a mini-mall.  Menashe's transformation, costing $15 million, opened in early 2010 as the "Limelight Marketplace."

photograph by The New York Times

photo by The New York Times

Richard Upjohn's picturesque masterpiece that sparked a trend in 19th Century church architecture and revolutionized the way the church viewed its social obligations is, sadly, now a bazaar for high-priced perfumes and bed linens; ironically not unlike the retail palaces that crowded around it in the 1880s.

non-credited photographs taken by the author


  1. Hi, as a student in architecture in Quebec, I am currently working on a project about the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion and its transformations; did you get any plan, section, elevation, or detail to write your article, or do you know where I could find some? I can not go to the landmark preservation commission in person in New York, and couldn't find any pictural information... Thank you very much for your help!
    Marielle GAERTNER

  2. Thanks for a well written article.