William Augustus Muhlenberg: Founder of St. Luke’s Hospital and Rector of the Church which became a Nightclub which became a Mall

Young Muhlenberg

Young Muhlenberg

In 1826, a young and charismatic Pennsylvanian preacher by the name of William Augustus Muhlenberg was named rector of St. George’s Church in the town of Flushing on Long Island.  Flushing, now a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, was at the time a quaint rural village, home to little more than a series of rolling hills and farms. But Flushing’s proximity to bustling New York City led to a steady growth in population and culture throughout the early 19th century. In 1828, a group of concerned citizens banded together in an effort to bring the town’s educational merits up to a higher moral and scholastic standard. These men asked Muhlenberg to head their new school. He accepted and, in the spring of that year, the school opened.

Flushing as it appeared in the mid-19th century.

Flushing as it appeared in the mid-19th century.

Muhlenberg led the Flushing school for 18 years. In that time, he revolutionized the application of Christianity in an educational setting. In fact, he revolutionized schooling in America as a whole. His belief that a holistic education was necessary for a pupil to succeed in life was hitherto unheard of. “Truth is large, not small,” he claimed, “and the human person is made of parts that must be brought by Grace into a harmony.” His belief that life lessons must be learned each day led to the matriculation of a yearly cadre of highly successful young men, many of whom had previously been perceived as holding a merely average academic ability. Muhlenberg’s methods were copied by Christian schools throughout the United States, and certain portions found their way into public teaching methods which endure to this day.

Muhlenberg, ca 1850

Muhlenberg, ca 1850

In the early 1840s, Muhlenberg’s brother-in-law, John Rogers, passed away. His dying wish was for there to be established in his memory a church at which “rich and poor might meet together.” His wife (and William Muhlenberg’s sister), Anna, carried out his request, and on July 25, 1844, the cornerstone for this new democratic church was laid at the corner of 6th Avenue and 20th Street in the then-unfashionable and relatively rural neighborhood of Chelsea on the northern edge of New York City.

The Church of the Holy Communion, ca 1850 (NYPL)

The Church of the Holy Communion, ca 1850 (NYPL)

Designed by Richard Upjohn, most famous for his Trinity Church at the foot of Wall Street in lower Manhattan, the new church was consecrated on December 13, 1846 as the Church of the Holy Communion. Anna Rogers requested that her brother come  to be the new church’s first rector. He accepted her request, leaving his Flushing school, and moving to Manhattan to preach the gospel in what is believed to have been America’s first “free” church. (Until the Church of the Holy Communion, worshipers were required to purchase space in pews, leaving many of society’s lower classes unable to attend regularly.)

The church's interior, 1901 (nycago.org)

The church’s interior, 1901 (nycago.org)

But Muhlenberg’s sights were set ever higher. Almost immediately upon the Church of the Holy Communion’s opening, he set to work making plans and raising funds for the construction of a Christian hospital in New York. Until that point, the city had but two hospitals: New York Hospital, whose 350 beds were largely dedicated to seamen, and Bellevue Hospital, whose 550 beds were not nearly enough to handle the city’s burgeoning poor population. And so it was, that in late 1846, Rector Muhlenberg accepted his first collection of donations toward what would eventually be known as St. Luke’s Hospital.

St. Luke's Hospital at 54th Street and 5th Avenue, ca 1880.

St. Luke’s Hospital at 54th Street and 5th Avenue, ca 1880.

St. Luke’s opened to patients in the Spring of 1858 at the corner of 54th Street and 5th Avenue. Its nursing staff was made up entirely of volunteers from The Sisterhood of the Church of the Holy Communion, an all-female organization of deaconesses established by Rector Muhlenberg in 1852 with Sister Anne Ayres at its head. The Sisters handled virtually all nursing requirements of the hospital until 1888, when the St. Luke’s Hospital Training School for Nurses was established to meet the growing institution’s extensive demands.

Sister Anne Ayres of the Sisterhood of the Church of the Holy Communion.

Sister Anne Ayres of the Sisterhood of the Church of the Holy Communion.

William Muhlenberg died on April 8, 1877, leaving an illustrious legacy. The Church of the Holy Communion was a thriving and active parish in New York’s Chelsea district. And St. Luke’s Hospital and accompanying Nursing School remained the city’s leading medical institution for many decades.

St Lukes 1938

St. Luke’s Nursing School – class of 1938

But time has a way of turning many things on their heads. As New York plunged into the darkness and despair of the poverty- and drug-addled 1970s, Rector Muhlenberg’s legacies at last could not keep up, even by the power of Grace. The neighborhood of Chelsea had become heavily industrialized throughout the middle of the 20th century, pushing residents out and discouraging commerce. The Church of the Holy Communion’s congregation dwindled and its coffers emptied. In 1975, the Episcopal diocese of New York made the executive decision to combine the congregations of Holy Communion, Calvary Church on Park Avenue, and St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square. Calvary and St. George’s would remain in use, but the neglected little 130-year-old chapel on 6th Avenue, built by Anna Rogers in memory of her husband John, would be deconsecrated and sold to cover the parish’s debts.

The Church as it appeared in 2010

The Church as it appeared in 2010

In keeping with Muhlenberg’s charitable workings, the church was sold to Odyssey House, a drug rehabilitation organization. But by 1983, Odyssey had also fallen on hard economic times. And so, to the horror of New York’s Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore Jr, Odyssey House sold the church to infamous nightclub owner Peter Gatien. Rows of pews gave way to a dance floor, and the pitched neo-gothic ceiling was festoons with strobe lights and disco balls, and on November 9, 1983, the church reopened as the nightclub Limelight. Andy Warhol emceed the opening party, with a DJ booth perched above the 6th Avenue entrance, and a ticket-taker tucked into a confessional booth.

"Club Kids" waiting to get into Limelight in the late 1980s.

“Club Kids” waiting to get into Limelight in the late 1980s.

Limelight became an equally famous and infamous cornerstone of the New York night scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Celebrities rubbed shoulders with artists, drag queens, and drugs pushers. The club held the world’s first “foam party,” in which revelers danced in waist-deep foam, often strung out on exotic narcotics to “enhance the experience.” Limelight flew largely under the NYPD’s radar until 1996, when widely-known club promoter Michael Alig was rumored to have been involved in the murder and dismemberment of drug dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez. Alig and his “Club Kids” were famous at the time for their extravagant dress and rampant drug use. His proteges included such icons as Richie Rich, Amanda Lepore, and RuPaul, and they appeared regularly on talk shows, exposing a fascinated public to their outlandish dress and behavior.

Club owner Peter Gatien with promoter (and murderer) Michael Alig at Limelight in 1991.

Club owner Peter Gatien with promoter (and murderer) Michael Alig at Limelight in 1991.

But Alig’s connection to Melendez’s murder was what tipped the scales against Limelight. Once it was established that the two men had been connected through the club, NYPD officers set up a sting operation. They discovered a flagrant and extensive drug-dealing and -use culture at Limelight. The club was shut down in 1996, Alig went to jail after admitting to the murder, and the New York party scene began to end as everyone knew it. Limelight attempted to resurrect itself for several years, but finally closed for good in 2001.

Limelight, before (L) and after (R) its conversion to a shopping market.

Limelight, before (L) and after (R) its conversion to a shopping market.

That year, the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation obtained full ownership of the 155-year-old church, and drew up plans to turn it into an upscale shopping mall. Being that it is a national historic landmark, no drastic changes can be made to the church’s exterior, but its insides would be unrecognizable to Rector Muhlenberg. Where he once made pleas for peace, faith, and reason, shoppers browse racks of stilettos and order slices of pizza. And in 2011, as perhaps a final dash of salt in the wound, the shopping center became home to an IHOP.

St. Luke's new building as it appeared in 1910, to the right of the under-construction Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

St. Luke’s new building as it appeared in 1910, to the right of the under-construction Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

As for Muhlenberg’s St. Luke’s Hospital, it fared better, though by no means unchanged. In 1896, it opened in a new, Ernest Flagg-designed building on West 113th Street, adjacent to the (still) under-construction Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This area of Morningside Heights was likewise anchored by the new campus of Columbia University, creating an acropolis of human enrichment, bettering the mind, soul, and body all within a 10-block radius.

The final graduating class of St. Luke's Nursing School, inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1974.

The final graduating class of St. Luke’s Nursing School, inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1974.

But the mid-20th century was as unkind to St. Luke’s as it was to many of New York’s formidable institutions, and in 1979, St. Luke’s combined with Roosevelt Hospital to become St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center. Its 1,076 beds continue to serve the people of New York to this day. And it is largely due to the charitable ambition of a humble rector from rural Pennsylvania by the name of William Augustus Muhlenberg.

William Augustus Muhlenberg's grave at Saint Johnland Cemetery in Kings Park, Suffolk County, New York

William Augustus Muhlenberg’s grave at Saint Johnland Cemetery in Kings Park, Suffolk County, New York

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About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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2 Responses to William Augustus Muhlenberg: Founder of St. Luke’s Hospital and Rector of the Church which became a Nightclub which became a Mall

  1. Neoma Walshaw says:

    Fascinating historical account accompanied by interesting, timeless, photographs of New York City. Well done.

    Please continue your focus on the historical aspects of America’s greatest city. It is so important to our future generations that these important cultural aspects of our past be documented and that the photographic history be made available to a much wider audience than previously. It is these important and intriguing historical bits and pieces which are so often never known by a great many ordinary people who live and work in New York City.

    Your writing style and presentation of the accompanying photographs strike exactly the right tone. Keep up the excellent work, and thank you so much for this wonderful experience.

    • Thank you so much for this glowing message. I truly appreciate you taking the time to read my pieces. I’ve fallen behind on my writing lately, with a new job and a broken home computer, but I plan to re-start soon! Please keep reading when I do! Your support is needed and appreciated!

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