Built in 1849, this neo-Gothic Episcopal church in Manhattan's Flatiron neighborhood remained for decades a house of worship. Since being deconsecrated in 1976, the former Church of the Holy Communion has been renovated and repurposed three times. But despite dramatic interior re-designs, the 25,000 square foot building retains its understated revival feel from the exterior.
After recent years of standing vacant, the church has found its latest new calling. Jack Menashe, who owned Lounge in SoHo, decided to lease the building and transform it into Limelight Marketplace. He enlisted the help of designers James Mansour and Melisca Klisanin. The concept: experimental high-end retail, with more than 40 small shops, including an apothecary, a wine bar, sweets wing, and epicurean market. Styled after London's Covent Garden and Dover Street Market, the re-designed interior space feels at once intimate and sprawling.
After $15 million of construction, which took nearly a year, the new incarnation of Limelight opened its massive, gothic doors to the public in early May, with a celebrity-speckled champagne-heavy opening reception – red carpet included. It seemed a far cry from the space's last transformation.
The Limelight is best known for the notorious decade of its life when it was owned by nightclub-king Peter Gatien. Beginning in 1983, the building opened as a dance club and quickly became a haven for club kids. Cages for dancers were suspended from the rafters, a DJ booth was added to the organ loft, and sheet rock was installed to cover the stained-glass windows. It earned a seedy reputation along the way – and the nickname Slimelight.
Known for parties organized by club kid Michael Alig, Limelight saw attendance by celebrities like Madonna and Chloe Sevigny. Designer Richie Rich (pictured left in the new Limelight Marketplace), who partied regularly at the Limelight back in the early '90s, attended the opening of the new Limelight Marketplace. He told Inc. that although he thinks the new marketplace's design "looks beautiful," it's bittersweet to be back inside its walls. "Its like going back to a high school reunion for me. I feel bad in that I miss my friends I loved," Rich said. "The memories are great. I had so much fun here, back when we were like kids in a candy store. We all had our lives turn into something, for good or bad, and I wouldn't change it for the world." (Pictured at right are a group of club goers posing outside the club in the early '90s.)
Today, shops of varying designs spill into narrow walkways, occupying spaces of unconventional dimensions: a gelato stand juts out from a corner; a pet-accessories store occupies a hallway wall; a Havaianas sandals kiosk occupies an open floor space in front of It'Sugar candy shop.
Limelight is billing the marketplace as a "turn-key solution" for entrepreneurs and innovative retailers, which can rent a location for a fraction of the cost of a full Manhattan storefront. Menache's retail experiment is having luck wooing products such as Hunter Boots (pictured) and Havaianas sandals into becoming original vendors. Each is opened its first U.S. storefronts in Limelight.
The goal is to create a space that's a fascination in itself, with winding stairwells and new shops around every bend. In other words, Limelight Marketplace is hoping to be an anti-mall, said designer and architect James Mansour. For instance, a menswear and leather-accessory purveyor is perched in a skybox; an unmarked corridor opens into an outdoor greenmarket. "The maze-like stairwells and meandering design is about discovery, so you can't take it all in on the first visit," Mansour said.
Indeed, plenty of the retail spaces are occupied by first- or second-locations – and many of the food and sweets purveyors are debut locations. Mari's New York is the new "one-bite brownie" shop by the former Balthazar baker Mari Tuttle, who previously had only sold her brownies through other retailers, such as Bergdorf Goodman.
In a back corridor of Limelight Marketplace that houses only sweets purveyors, Butterfly Bakeshop is the first terrestrial location for a New York-based online bakery, and online gourmet market Jezalin's is also opening its first storefront on Limelight's first floor.
There's an element of surprise to turning certain corners in this little mall. One of them is entering a sleek, silver-and-white corridor that leads to Brocade Home, the home decor and design shop.
Olatz Lopez Garmendia (pictured, left, with Kelly Bensimon of the Real Housewives of New York), the founder of linen and luxury sleepwear shop Olatz, who is married to artist Julien Schnabel, said the location drew her to sign a lease with Limelight. "It's a great building, and they did a great job with it," she said. "My other store is a little out of the way and we just barely survived the recession, so this has potential."
May's opening celebration once again filled Limelight with minor celebrities and New York scenesters, though chandeliers have now replaced the disco balls and wafts of perfume now stand in where thick plumes of smoke used to cloud the air. If it succeeds, look for more unique architectural spaces to be reinvented as retail destinations.