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Scientology's Hollywood Real Estate Empire

The biggest owner of historic buildings in Hollywood, the Church of Scientology has earned a good-neighbor status as its acquisitions continue -- even as questions about its motives abound.
Neil Webb

"The fact they are buying all of these expensive and historic properties -- it is not surprising people are going to be a little bit alarmed by that," says Hugh Urban, a comparative religions professor at Ohio State University who studies the organization. "When you couple that with statements Hubbard and Scientologists have made about building a new civilization, it is not surprising that people would be at unease."

Among the hot-button points: Scientology's designation as a religion exempts the group from paying some property taxes on buildings used for spiritual purposes (affording the church an annual savings of at least hundreds of thousands of dollars); the belief by Urban that the group has purchased the historic properties simply to imbue itself with historical significance; the claim by defectors that the historic-building program is simply part of a public relations and marketing campaign designed to bolster the church's ranks of celebrity adherents (there are many) and distract from the group's controversies; and issues raised by defectors about Scientology's labor practices as they relate to the restoration of historic buildings.

Over the years, several publications, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the St. Petersburg Times and Time have addressed the implications of the group's tax-exempt status and labor practices. Most recently, a lengthy New Yorker story on Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Paul Haggis' decision to leave Scientology explored both topics. The piece by Lawrence Wright cited defectors who described work being done by the church's controversial Rehabilitation Project Force program, whose members in the past worked on some construction and renovation projects.

For this report, three defectors agreed to share their stories and discuss their beliefs about the group's Hollywood holdings. Some claim to have played key roles in managing the church's real estate portfolio and worked on projects in Hollywood. "The buildings, that whole thing, it's all about image and being immune from any type of culpability," says Rathbun, 54, who was part of the organization for 22 years before leaving seven years ago. He now counsels ex-Scientologists and documents those efforts on his blog.

The church thoroughly defends its real estate program. The organization answered nearly every question asked of it, often in lengthy written statements. It also sought to discredit defectors, terming them "defrocked apostates." But the church also allowed this reporter to spend a late-June day with four members of its real estate team -- visiting facilities in Hollywood, Pasadena and Commerce, Calif. -- in an effort to explain the size, scope and sophistication of its operation. The revealing seven-hour tour included stops at five properties. And during the course of several wide-ranging interviews, conducted via e-mail and telephone, spokesmen Tommy Davis and Bob Adams defended the group's real estate practices, addressed issues of labor and taxation and explained the church's interest in Hollywood's historic properties.

Says Davis, whose mother is Oscar-nominated actress Anne Archer, also a Scientologist, "Anybody who is involved in Hollywood and is doing something to make a difference knows what the Church of Scientology has done for decades."  

WHY HOLLYWOOD?

There is no single -- or simple -- explanation for the church's interest in Hollywood. The church says it entered the market because it offered good value and a chance to restore downtrodden properties, and Hollywood is conveniently located in a region filled with Scientologists.

Scientology is known for its celebrity converts such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The religion is partly aimed at those in creative industries, including actors, writers and musicians. And the church makes good use of its connections in the entertainment business, offering, for example, acting classes and industry seminars at the Celebrity Centre. Events in July include "How to Get an Agent, How to Get Work" and "How to Get Cast for the Part."

Tom De Vocht, who was with the church for 29 years and claims to have overseen its real estate program from 2001 until just before his departure from the organization in 2005, says the group's interest in historic properties is a PR play. Internally, the real estate program is meant to prove that the church is "expanding and that things are going great." And it is designed to market the religion to the wider world, he says, adding, "It is not resulting in anything except for beautiful buildings."

Adams disagrees. "The only explanation as to how we are doing it, and why, is the fact that Scientology is expanding and growing like never in history," he says. (The church says De Vocht mismanaged church construction projects and overstated his role within the church's real estate program. De Vocht denies these claims. "That is a totally manufactured, made-up thing," he says.)

Because the church proselytizes, a high-traffic neighborhood like Hollywood is important, according to Dakota Smith, former editor of Curbed L.A., a real estate blog that regularly covers the group. "They are trying to get people off the street -- Hollywood has a lot of new arrivals," says Smith, now a reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News. Indeed, the church owns four historic buildings situated on the roughly mile-long stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that starts at La Brea Avenue to the west and ends at Vine Street to the east. That section of the boulevard teems with tourists and is home to plenty of fresh Los Angeles transplants, functioning as the city's Times Square equivalent.

Ohio State professor Urban believes that Scientology's interest in historic properties is part of a strategy to help legitimize the religion started by a group of devotees of Dianetics, Hubbard's self-help guide. "If you are trying to establish yourself as a religion and give the appearance of authority, you want to buy up properties that give it that historical weight," says Urban, whose forthcoming book, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, will be released by Princeton University Press in August.

Davis dismisses Urban's notion: "That is an interesting concept, but it has never crossed our minds."

Davis does, however, acknowledge the significance of Hollywood to the organization. Part of Hubbard's interest in the community and its landmarks was its importance within L.A., home to the largest concentration of Scientologists in the world -- roughly 250,000 parishioners out of about 10 million worldwide, according to Davis. (The U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2008, reports there were only 25,000 Americans who identified themselves as Scientologists. Davis says the methods used to procure this data make the figure "entirely inaccurate.")

THE CELEBRITY CENTRE

In the 1970s, Hubbard, Davis says, noted the "physical blight and social problems" of Hollywood but "believed the area would come into a period of revitalization." The church's purchase of property in Hollywood was the next phase of Hubbard's long-running association with the area. Before becoming a religious leader, Hubbard, who died in 1986, was a pulp and science fiction author who frequented the community. During the 1940s, the Tilden, Neb., native conducted research for Dianetics from a Sunset Boulevard office, and in 1950 -- the year the book was released -- an office of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation opened on Hoover Street.

The group made its first historic Hollywood acquisition in 1973, scooping up the landmark Chateau Elysee, which had been slated for demolition when the church purchased it for $1.5 million. It is now worth upward of $75 million, according to real estate sources, and serves as the church's Celebrity Centre. The church completed a lengthy renovation of the 5930 Franklin Ave. property in the early '90s; it now includes religious facilities, a hotel for spiritual retreats, a health spa and the French restaurant Renaissance. Auditing, a type of spiritual counseling that involves an electronic device called an E-Meter, is performed there. The fanciful property, formerly a hotel and apartment building, is replete with turrets, drawbridges, formal walking gardens and a pergola.

STORY: HUSH MONEY! MURDER!: The Famed Chateau Elysee

The Celebrity Centre was built to cater to members of the flock in the fields of arts, sports and government. It was the first of several such facilities opened around the world. "Gaining celebrity endorsement is a key strategy for Scientology expansion," says Amy Scobee, who joined the church in 1979, left in 2005 and was an executive in the Celebrity Centre organization. "Celebrity Centres were created to specifically disseminate to and cater to celebrities and artists because of the influence they have on the population."

Adams says that celebrity adherents are not used for "marketing" of the church. "They are parishioners like any other Scientology parishioner," he says.

(The Hollywood Reporter asked the church for comment from several celebrity adherents. Ultimately, the church provided THR with statements from three actors: Nancy Cartwright, Danny Masterson and Erika Christensen. Each praised the church for its real estate program.)

Following the purchase of Chateau Elysee, the group acquired a handful of notable properties in short order: the former Christie Hotel (1974) and Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (1976). Others were added in the 1980s and '90s, including the Hollywood Guaranty Building and the former Hollywood Savings and Loan building. While some are deemed merely to have historic character, many are listed on historic registers, affording them protection from demolition or significant alteration. The group and its affiliates also own non-historic properties including nondescript apartment and office buildings, a recording studio in Silver Lake and the Sunset Boulevard property that houses the anti-psychiatry museum.

 

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