“What does a church mean? Really, it’s a group of like-minded believers,” Guggenmos said. “In that very basic sense, a church is not the walls. It’s the people, like-minded people.”
But Guggenmos is quick to make clear that he’s not equating his plans for a club with a church, even as he makes the point that he wants it to be a gathering place for people seeking community.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Guggenmos, who is also a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner. “We want to create a space that the gay community is proud of.”
Guggenmos was one of the original co-owners of the gay nightclub Town Danceboutique, considered a mainstay in the District’s LGBTQ community for more than a decade before it shut its doors last summer, a casualty of the gentrification it helped spur. Its closing, former patrons said, left a void. There no longer seemed to be a place where gay people as young as 18 could comfortably dance through the night.
Now it appears that a new version of Town is returning to the District, this time in the former St. Phillips Baptist Church on North Capitol Street NE, in the rapidly developing NoMa neighborhood. The news drew celebration from the District’s LGBTQ community and dedicated fans of the former nightclub.
“Town is risen?” read one tweet. “Let the church say amen,” said another. Some Twitter users even started suggesting possible names for the new club — Church, Communion, Spirit, Heaven or Sanctuary, among others.
But despite references to the spiritual nature of the nightclub’s new home, Guggenmos said he wants to make clear that he did not choose the location because of its former capacity as a church. He does not want to make light of any place of worship, he added, nor does he, at this point, want to give it a church-related name. For now, the corporate name listed on the nightclub’s liquor license application is simply “Town2.0, LLC.”
Guggenmos and his business partners, Ed Bailey and Jim “Chachi” Boyle, chose the building because of the space, the “drama of the height” — a four-story interior with wooden beams, stained-glass windows and acoustics that could produce unparalleled shows.
“The very first time I walked in it was like looking down at . . . the Grand Canyon, that feeling of ‘oh my God,’ ” Guggenmos said. “I just knew it.”
Most importantly, he said he wants to create a space where young gay people can dance and sing and watch drag shows and know they won’t be judged. Like Town Danceboutique, Guggenmos said, the new nightclub will have an 18-plus night — a rarity in the District.
That sense of belonging is needed now more than ever, he said, citing a rollback in protections for the LGBTQ community on the federal level and troubling rates of suicide and depression among LGBTQ youths.
Although younger members of the gay community seem much more open and self-assured than when Guggenmos was growing up, he said, “they still need to know that whatever they are going through, there are other people going through it.”
In a way, Guggenmos sees the new location — with its commanding presence and natural light — as the next wave for gay nightlife in the District, where just decades ago the community was relegated to windowless clubs in warehouse districts.
The site had been the home of St. Phillips Baptist Church since 1948, according to the church’s website. The congregation, whose pastor is part of a large black Baptist denomination, has relocated to Temple Hills, Md.
Jemal’s Sanctuary purchased the property in March 2017, according to records with the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, and the owner had reportedly initially hoped to convert the church into a synagogue. The owner did not respond to requests for comment.
Beneath the church’s towering ceiling, Guggenmos and his business partners hope to cast beams of light and have a chandelier that can rise and descend into the atrium.
“It allows you to reveal something in the night,” he said.
He also hopes to create an outdoor patio space with a fountain to the right of the church’s main entrance, along K Street NE, surrounded by a green garden fence.
He plans to preserve the stained-glass windows and keep the exterior of the church the same. He added that he wants people in the neighborhood, including residents of the apartment complex next door, to be assured that the club’s owners are carefully investing in sound engineering to avoid noise disturbances. They also plan to have an active police presence.
“We’ve always created spaces like we’re going to live across the street from them,” he said.
As he prepares to launch the new Town, Guggenmos’s mind shifts back to a young man who recently sent him a handwritten letter. The two of them had met five years earlier, outside Town during one of Guggenmos’s “stop-ins,” the young man said.
“There is no particular reason you would remember me,” his letter reads. “I wanted to thank you for Town and the concern you showed me that night.”
He said that, at a time when he had just been rejected by his family and his church, “the club was a refuge for me.”
If the move to the new location goes according to plan, it would not be the first time a church has morphed into a club.
One of the most well-known clubs to ever be housed in a church was the Limelight in New York City, which gained notoriety after one of its “club kids” was convicted of killing and dismembering a fellow patron. It closed its doors permanently in 2001 and is now a gym.