Back in the limelight
With the Desgrippes Gobé Group design for Chelsea nightclub Avalon, a Gothic tale gets a happy ending
Stephen F. Milioti -- Interior Design, 9/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Louder than Sound Factory, more debauched than Danceteria, Limelight owed a lot of its original thrill factor to architecture. (The Chelsea nightclub occupied an 1840's neo-Gothic church by Richard Upjohn, who also built Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street.) Nightlife notoriety soon followed, with New York University students doing lines in faux confessional booths and Mephistophelian owner Peter Gatien prowling the murky hallways, a black patch over one eye. Then, in 1996, Limelight really got dragged into the limelight—and onto the 11 o'clock news—following Gatien's arrest on drug charges. That bust proved futile. Months later, however, Limelight party promoter Michael Alig was convicted of murdering and dismembering Angel Melendez, one of the drug dealers linked to the club. Then, in 1999, Gatien himself went to jail for tax evasion.
Clearly, the church was in need of a serious sleaze exorcism, not to mention a design redemption. "The idea of dancing in a church isn't taboo anymore. Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' video broke through all that," says Sam O'Donahue. Head of the architecture department at Desgrippes Gobé Group, O'Donahue says he began by stripping the "pseudo-Gothic religious tat"—pulpits and silver crosses everywhere—while honoring significant architectural and ecclesiastical elements. After a few months' work, the building was ready to emerge as Avalon, slated to open this fall.
O'Donahue divided the three-level, 16,000-square-foot interior into thematic zones. The dance floors represents Energy, the adjacent bars Seduction. Lounges are either Escape or Fantasy. Ancillary spaces, Discovery, received just as much attention as destination areas.
Different zones are visually linked by O'Donahue's repeated use of curves. The entry is as curvy as it gets, with a drywall structure spray-painted cyan, undulating above a long horizontal aperture framing cash registers. A lounge on the third level resembles a capsule, its walls and ceiling lined in dark brown corrugated-looking upholstery that morphs into a banquette on either side. A collection of seating cubes covered in purple and champagne coordinates with the back wall's color-transferred vinyl polka dots à la Damien Hirst.
Everywhere, striking illumination and intense color have replaced Limelight's sinister murkiness. The three unisex bathrooms are basically freestanding boxes clad in translucent aluminum honeycomb panels, backlit with fluorescents. Inside, high-gloss red walls contrast with white ceramic floor tile. Along the dim hallways—made "wonderfully circuitous," O'Donahue says, to enhance the licentious atmosphere—spotlights cast dazzling orange and blue circles on the poured-resin floor.
Pale blue paint and exterior-grade up-lighting make the original Gothic arches' grandeur shine as they frame the cruciform main dance floor on the ground level. At one end of the former nave, O'Donahue ripped out the altar and made the stage lower and wider to accommodate rock concerts and fashion shows. The bar opposite used to be "one of the skankiest you can imagine," says O'Donahue. After removing the old ceiling and rusted lacquered-steel bar, he added still more color—a red poured-epoxy floor, lime-green tinted mirrors—as well as a bar topped in a polyester-resin matrix embedded with glass and avventurina chips. A new flight of two steps prevents the area from feeling simply like dance-floor overflow.
Other areas are even more secluded. In the second-level's intimate bar, walls are clad in shiny aluminum generally used in the manufacture of automotive frames. "It's got a stark, pared-down impact with a lot of attitude," explains O'Donahue. The aluminum also faces the under-lit bar itself, which almost appears to float when the room is darkened. The third-level's VIP lounges, mirrored cubes tucked beneath the church's restored ceiling beams, are dark and sexy. "Like a movie star's living room," says O'Donahue. In each, the architect installed a bed-sofa-banquette perfect for lounging, drinking, or…. Never mind.