It was a drizzling spring day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack was playing in what used to be a mechanic’s garage at 57 Conselyea Street. The place is now a whitewashed room filled with red hearts. The current tenant, Julie Guinta, was clad in a triumphant marigold pantsuit as she welcomed a couple toting paper coffee cups in from the rain. Then she officiated their wedding ceremony in about the time it would have taken their drinks to brew.
After sealing their union with a kiss, the groom’s first words as a married man were, “That was so easy!”
The Sweet Hearts chapel is a new, Vegas-style wedding space in New York built for efficiency, for a pandemic and for Instagram. It’s among a handful of one-stop nuptial shops to open in the city in the last two years. For $650, a couple gets an hour in the chapel, which includes a bathroom and dressing area; a ceremony led by Ms. Guinta, who is ordained through the Universal Life Church, or their own officiant; chairs for up to 10 guests; and a “honeymoon bag” of Ring Pops, T-shirts and recommendations of bars, restaurants and tattoo parlors in the neighborhood. For an additional $500, Edward Winter, a Brooklyn photographer, will capture the event and do a photo shoot against a primary-colored backdrop.
“I didn’t need it to be this big to-do,” said Sim Cheema, 29, who works in finance. She married Daniel Piehler, 31, a founder of the Dubai-based real estate company Nomad Homes, in the chapel on that rainy April 15 afternoon.
With Covid restrictions and jobs that routinely bounce them among New York, San Francisco and Dubai, the couple needed a quick ceremony (and one that enabled Mr. Piehler to get on Ms. Cheema’s health insurance). “Then we’ll have the bigger party and wedding with the whole shebang sometime next year,” Ms. Cheema said.
Sweet Hearts is owned by Ms. Guinta, whose ebullient energy and personal style (from marabou feather-accented heels to an arm tattoo of chips and a margarita) suffuse the chapel. She worked in public relations for the fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, at an auction house (before trying her hand at event design), and finally, weddings. “I so fell in love with it, because it’s such an honor to take part in people’s special days,” she said. “I mean, how incredible is that? You get to experience love multiple times a weekend.”
She started her wedding design firm, Little Sister Creative, in 2019, but the idea for the chapel came when offering to design a gorgeous blowout for her own friends. “Immediately I was like, ‘Let’s freaking do this.’ And they said, ‘Actually, we just want to get married over steaks at St. Anselm, and not do anything big,” Ms. Guinta said. The friends had considered City Hall but found it lacking in romance, so she officiated over meat as requested and signed their license at the table. She then began dreaming of a tiny, dedicated space for other low-key couples.
The idea came before the pandemic, but the subsequent event restrictions — and the closure of City Hall to walk-in weddings — underlined the need for an alternative place. “Before Covid, I noticed that the wedding industry bubble was about to pop,” she said. “Because of Pinterest, because of people seeing insane, over-the-top things, I had this feeling like ‘What’s next? Are we going to start chartering private jets, and the private jet is wearing a flower crown?’ I really felt for those couples that said, and not even on a monetary basis, ‘This just isn’t for me.’”
Sweet Hearts is not the first or only Vegas-style chapel in the city. Love Chapel NYC, a simple, white-curtained venue, opened on the Upper West Side in January, and in 2019, a quirky spot called Instant Elopements started welcoming couples to a former therapist’s office in Forest Hills, Queens. Prices start at $55, and until Covid, walk-in ceremonies were offered (for all three chapels, the couples are responsible for obtaining their own marriage license before the ceremony).
“This was a place that always needed to happen,” said DonnaMarie SanSevero, the founder of Instant Elopements and wedding officiant, who is ordained through Open Ministries of California. “Some people would say, ‘Can you just sign our license? I’ll meet you at Starbucks.’ I was like, there’s got to be a nicer way to do this.”
It can be difficult to have a small wedding or elopement in New York, even for the most low-key couple. A restaurant’s yard or private room for a handful of guests can still cost five figures, while the parks require permits — and hardly guarantee a couple’s desired gazebo will be vacant.
“Couples will reach out to us and say, ‘We’re doing things really chill.’ We hear that a lot,” said Lara Mahler, a micro-wedding specialist. “Well, in order for it to be super chill and super relaxed, there needs to be a handover, at a certain point” to a coordinator or manager of the venue. Her company, Alt Weddings, is so named to provide City Hall alternatives.
As pandemic restrictions loosen even more, many couples and guests alike are yearning for the opportunity to sing-scream “Shout!” in a crowd of 250, while others have been set free of those social and financial obligations.
“If it were a couple of years ago, maybe there would have been more questions like, ‘Oh, why don’t you want to celebrate with more people?’” said Katie Elks, the director of design and product development at the bedding company Brooklinen, who is getting married at Sweet Hearts in May. “But I think this past year shows that committing to the union and moving forward are the most important parts.”
Jocelyn Voo, a New York photographer who specializes in elopements, says the concept of weddings should be broadened. “I’ve had couples say, ‘This was a great excuse so I didn’t have to invite the whole extended family,’” she said. “At the end of the day, when I ask couples, how was it, how do you feel? They have these huge smiles on their faces.”
Ms. Guinta says couples “are starting to put themselves first and their relationships first. We’ve lost so much, and grown so much. After Covid, I hope that continues on.”
Ms. Guinta is starry-eyed about where Sweet Hearts can go from here. She’s renewing her own vows with her husband for their 10th wedding anniversary on May 28 and planning events around Pride Month in June.
She envisions pop-ups wherever people want to declare romantic or platonic adoration. “Here’s Sweet Hearts Burning Man! Sweet Hearts Art Basel!” she said. “I mean, love is limitless.”