By Javier Otazu
New York, Oct 9 (EFE).- New York City is full of churches of every faith on Earth, but many of them are empty and others have stopped providing religious services and are being used in a variety of ways, with museums, theaters, gymnasiums or pizzerias occupying the naves of the old deconsecrated churches and even a few synagogues.
Although New York was filled with churches in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many established by the city’s booming Irish and Italian communities, both very religious groups, during the second half of the 20th century, the wave of secularism around the Christian world resulted in many of them becoming empty.
During the 1980s and ’90s, the Catholic Church, followed by various Protestant churches, sold off a large portion of their real estate holdings to the highest bidder. Sometimes that was a real estate company that transformed the site into an apartment bloc, but at others the buyer preferred to retain the “cache” of having a facade adorned with crucifixes and carvings of saints.
On some occasions, just the shell of the church was retained to give the functional building an interesting look. That is what happened with the headquarters of Fotografiska, New York’s best photography museum built on the site of what once was the Church Missions House in the “Renaissance Revival” style in the late 19th century.
Today, except for the exterior walls with their square or semicircular windows, all the 1,300 square meters (14,000 square feet) of interior space has been transformed into a modern museum save a small area – the Chapel Bar – that is preserved exclusively for museum members. As the name suggests, the bar was once a chapel where the altarpiece is now a shelf for alcoholic drinks that are served through the window that was once part of a confession booth.
In any case, the appearance of the building, on Sixth Avenue, is quite attention-getting, and the famous fraudster Anna Delvey – who has a Netflix series about her escapades – tried to buy the building to establish the headquarters of her “foundation” where the elite of the New York artistic scene could gather.
Becoming quite famous during the 1990s was the discotheque that opened in what at one time had been the Church of the Holy Communion, better known as the Limelight Building. With the church having lost its congregation during the 1970s, and located in the degraded Chelsea neighborhood, it wound up being rented for one dollar per year.
The disco was inaugurated on a night in 1983 with the presence of pop art icon Andy Warhol, and the word is that regulars making the scene there were singers Cindy Lauper, Marilyn Manson and some of the members of Guns N Roses – performers sufficiently popular and risque to fuel the ongoing joke that never was a sacred spot the site of so much sinning.
Neither drugs nor sex were taboo at the Limelight, but the murder of a drug lord there by the venue’s show promoter significantly harmed the disco’s reputation and it ended up closing. Later, the neighborhood became gentrified and the Limelight was resurrected as a gymnasium, although nowadays it has an exclusive Chinese restaurant on one side of it and a rather mundane pizzeria on the other.
But most of the former churches are now theaters or concert halls thanks to their great acoustics and to the decorated interiors consisting of rose windows, stained glass and ogival windows, all of which are abundant in the neo-Gothic style structures that were so much in vogue in New York during the 19th century.
The Theater at St. Clements and the Harlem Parish are two of the Christian churches that have been converted into multiuse venues, where book presentations and perfume launches are held, along with theatrical works, flamenco concerts or simply private parties where the well-to-do can fete their friends in unforgettable surroundings.
Other religious structures of other faiths have also undergone transformations such as the old Anshe Chesed synagogue in Greenwich Village, which Spanish artist Angel Arensanz bought in 1998 for $2 million and restored “with his own hands.”
Today, the Orensanz Foundation manages the site through which Madonna, Marlon Brando, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, Robert de Niro and “all of Hollywood” have passed, as the Spaniard says. Some come to film a movie scene or record a song, but most often they book the venue for parties at the rate of $60,000 per day.
Orensanz, who has his own sketches, paintings and sculptures everywhere inside the old synagogue, doesn’t like to call his foundation an “event hall,” preferring to say that he did something much more noble with the building which, when he purchased it, was falling to pieces: “Converting death into life.”