From Stained Glass to Pilates Class

The treadmills are illuminated by the stained glass window left by the former Episcopal church in Chelsea, Manhattan on Feb. 10, 2019. || Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski.

The treadmills are illuminated by the stained glass window left by the former Episcopal church in Chelsea, Manhattan on Feb. 10, 2019. || Photo by Bernadette Berdychowski.


A stained glass portrait of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, shines on the desk of Limelight Fitness membership advisor, Vito Strambi. The saint’s eyes are drawn to the heavens, with her blonde hair adorned in pearls surrounded by golden rays and an organ below her. A left-behind relic from a deconsecrated Episcopalian Church in New York City, St. Cecilia has seen many things she may have never wanted to see. In the background, the faint sound of Drake’s “In My Feelings” pulsed through the vaulted ceilings.

The shell of the former Episcopalian Church of Holy Communion, located on 20 St. and 6th Ave., has been almost everything: a drug rehabilitation center, a European-disco club, a shopping mall, and now a personal fitness center.

When Limelight Fitness opened in June 2017, it focused on its original architectural style, wild history and personalized experience to be a “fitness sanctuary” where people can find “fitness inspiration,” according to its mission.

Especially in the Chelsea neighborhood, where there is a gym on “every three blocks,” according to Strambi, distinguishing one gym from another is key to succeeding.

“When you say, ‘I go to Equinox’ — which one? Gramercy, Upper West Side, Upper East Side? That’s not distinctive. When you say, ‘I go to Limelight,’ there’s only one in the world,” Strambi said.

But for Limelight, experience is part of the package.

Basic membership fees start at $109 per month with a one-year commitment or $119 per month on a month-to-month commitment. The gym also has student discounted rates, around $99, as well as corporate rates that typically go as low as $89 depending on the size of the group.

According to Strambi, about 50 to 60 percent of the atmosphere — from stained glass to pews lining the walls — is original from the church or the infamous club.

The Limelight was one of Manhattan’s most iconic party venues in the ’80s. It was owned by the notorious Peter Gatien, who owned many clubs, one with a glass dance floor with sharks swimming underneath. It closed in 2007 after many incidents with drug dealing and a high-profile murder that gave Mayor Rudy Giuliani cause to prosecute Gatien.

“I’ve never been here during the day,” a woman who walked into the fitness center for the first time in 20 years joked, noting that the logo was similar in design.

William Perez, a Limelight Fitness member who used to attend the Limelight club, wanted to be a member because of the nostalgia.

“That was real sinning back then,” he said.

William Perez works out at the Limelight Fitness Center on Feb. 10, 2019. || Photos by Bernadette Berdychowski.

William Perez works out at the Limelight Fitness Center on Feb. 10, 2019. || Photos by Bernadette Berdychowski.

Part of the joke for club-goers was in the irony that the place felt religious, Perez said.

“Was it sacrilegious?” Perez shrugged nonchalantly when asked whether seeing images of saints while partying made the experience uncomfortable. “It was accepted back then.”

Back in the main workout hall, Strambi pointed to the front of the building where a massive stained glass window is fixed in the middle of the room, holding a photo up of the nightclub.

“Where the front desk is [now], millions and millions of people were looking at that.”

One of the relics remaining from the club is a giant safe on the first floor, where two disco balls sit for nostalgic guests to admire. And for employees on the sales side, the unique story and features certainly come in handy when trying to recruit new members.

“Less is more when it comes to the sales part of it. Because everybody who comes here is just like ‘wow.’ I don’t need to tell you about the ‘wow.’ [Its] something naturally you have,” Strambi explained. “I’m still going to be friendly, but there’s no gym in the world that’s a gym that used to be the Limelight. So it kind of [sells itself].”

The majority of members are women, a 70-to-30 ratio, according to Strambi — all of whom are dedicated to intense workouts and personal training.

Staff claim the average client uses a trainer three to four times per week, largely focusing on high-intensity training. But a common theme among all clients — whether 28 or in their 60s — is that they’re “active people,” Strambi claims.

Most clients do a mixture of classes and personal training, according to Strambi. And with a class pass program and CPX training, he claims the combination has helped the gym increase “revenue through the classes and also exposure.”

But have prices increased in recent years?

“Yeah, it’s New York. You used to be able to get a pizza for $2, now you pay $3.50,” Strambi said.

But Limelight isn’t alone in raising fees. In fact, the fitness industry appears to be booming. According to the latest IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association) report, the U.S. fitness industry is worth $30 billion — growing 3 to 4 percent each year for the past 10 years.

Still, as is typical for most gyms, much of Limelight’s revenues come from one month in particular.

“It’s January, so [revenues] always go up in January because everybody’s saying ‘oh, I’m going to start working out,’” Strambi said.

Still, the club-turned-gym hasn’t always been operated so well. According to Michael Dean, former reality TV star on MTV’s ‘Are You the One?’-turned-personal trainer at Limelight, the former owner of the gym foreclosed on the building.

“People that were members would show up, they would leave stuff in the lockers, like a regular gym — and they would show up one day and there was a sign on the door that said — ‘seized.’ Because he didn’t pay rent for a long time,” Dean explained. “So it said ‘seized, sorry we’re closed — we’ll mail you your stuff.’ So no one had access to their stuff, and I don’t know what happened. It was really bad.”

But the past woes seem long behind the new gym management.

To boost exposure, Limelight Fitness has struck deals with models to use free passes to take pictures in the highly-aesthetic gym space.

“Because it’s your specific goals and how you’re changing, … you’re taking the video and it takes the middle man away. You want to film your own goals, right? And you’re going to do them in the best possible way,” Strambi said. “I don’t need to hire somebody to do it for you.”

But apart from using Instagram and models to promote their gym, Strambi claimed Limelight has a fairly far-reaching marketing strategy. The gym’s recent efforts include adding VIP perks and hosting offsite events.

Additionally, the gym’s recent investments — including a new room just for cryogenics — seem to be successful. According to Strambi, Limelight has been recently hiring employees to add to their current 42 — who are spread out throughout their marketing office in Long Island, administrative office in Midtown and the gym in Chelsea.

Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski.

Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski.

“What makes us different besides the architecture is the vibe. Specific. And that’s how we hire, depending on the vibe,” Strambi said.

With 1.41 gyms per 10,000 people in New York City, according to a study from 2015 by research company AggData, Limelight is distinguishing itself from competitors because of its history and attitude.

“It’s cool because you have so many choices — the same 20-pound weight you get here, you get at Equinox — I bet it weighs 20 pounds. At Planet Fitness, a 20-pound weight weighs the same, and throughout the whole world,” Strambi said. “You can’t change that. What you can change is how the atmosphere is and if people are happy.”