The Guaranty Building in 1923 (photo by Curt Teich & Co.) and in 2006.
Last week may have marked the end of a year-long promotional campaign of impossible proportions. But it was only the beginning of the age of enlightenment for the Church of Scientology.
An astounding 23 million visitors visited Scientology websites in 2005, where the FAQ page now seems to tap the mind of an US Weekly reader. In the same year, Scientology logged a record 289,000 minutes of radio and TV coverage coverage that upgraded Scientology from an obscure insider reference to national late night talk show fodder. When Isaac Hayes left "South Park" because of an episode that depicted Scientologist beliefs, Comedy Central issued an stunningly cheeky response from the show's creators: "Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun!" They said exactly what had been on our minds for months: Scientology is really screwing up Hollywood.
But if you live where I do, in the actual city of Hollywood, just a few blocks away from where the Oscars are held, you see the Church of Scientology as somewhat of a savior. Within a two-mile corridor along Hollywood Boulevard, the Church owns eight historic buildings, four of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. In a neighborhood where architectural triumphs evaporate with little remorse, Scientology is the most ardent preservationist force in town.
Los Angeles is infamous for its design amnesia, but Hollywood seems to have been whacked over the head particularly hard. By 1960, all but one of the film studios that financed the building boom in the 20's had relocated to different parts of the city, leaving a gilded shell to rot. Over the next 40 years, the city adopted some rather extreme planning methods.
The earthquake-damaged Egyptian Theater was cemented shut, sealing its ornate 1922 details inside like the King Tut tomb it was inspired by. Sardi's, the glamorous Schindler-designed sister to the NY power lunch spot was thrust out by current tenant, Le Sex Shoppe. Even after it was declared a cultural monument, the once-lush Garden Court apartment building, known later as "Hotel Hell," was soon leveled by an even more frightening, white cage of a complex named The Galaxy. No such measures were needed when the famous Brown Derby restaurant fell into disrepair; transients simply burned it to the ground.
When I moved here five years ago, the legendary heart of Hollywood the intersection of Hollywood and Highland was a vacant lot. I walked my new neighborhood expecting a shimmering celluloid siren or at least a seductive dark-hearted lounge lizard. But Hollywood today is more of a jaundiced has-been with her teeth punched out. Shingle-weary 1926 Craftsman, weedy parking lot, strip mall with stucco frosting, chain link fence. Repeat.
Slowly, Hollywood is making a comeback. But discovering an original structure that's not impregnated by souvenir shops is like seeing a celebrity on Hollywood Boulevard before 11pm.
One such structure holds court in the center of Hollywood: it's the prestigious Guaranty Building, a true Beaux Arts beauty. Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille invested in this building. Social columnist Hedda Hopper kept an office here. It still looks much like a 1923 banking center, which, at 150 feet, was once one of the tallest buildings in LA. Today, it is the mother church of the worldwide Scientology religion.
Next door, the Church owns the Regal Shoes building, a Streamline Moderne curved-corner property built in 1939. A few blocks down is a two-story Normandy-style building, home of the Scientology Test Center. Across the street from that is the Hotel Christie, the bricked-and-columned Colonial Revival built in 1923 by Arthur Kelly, considered the first luxury hotel in Hollywood due to its private baths. A neon sign runs its length like a theater marquee: S-C-I-E-N-T-O-L-O-G-Y lit up green and yellow at night. A lovely complex on the western end of Hollywood includes a Spanish Colonial church. The fluorescent pink bougainvillea of that courtyard compared to the graffiti etched in the empty storefronts of The Galaxy, right next door, makes me wish L. Ron Hubbard had started his writing career sooner.
With seemingly little self-awareness, Scientology has become the unofficial pioneer of Hollywood's gentrification movement. But why? In the 60's and 70's, when Scientology was staking its claim, land was cheap. What spurred them to scout and restore aging façades instead? In addition to his talents for spinning a religion out of a mediocre science fiction career, was Hubbard was an urban planning visionary?
Maybe, I thought, in Scientology speak, architectural renovation serves as a stirring metaphor for spiritual rebirth. Like a suppressive robbing an engram bank, I needed answers.
The crown jewel of Scientology's heirlooms is the Chateau Elysee, a 1929 replica of a 17th century French chateau now known as the Celebrity Centre International. It was built by Eleanor Ince, widow of Thomas Ince, the original movie mogul to house luminaries like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Errol Flynn and Ginger Rogers. It's also where Katie Holmes came, reportedly almost every day during the past year, to study. I chose this as my architectural gateway into Scientology.
I call ahead, saying I'm an architecture enthusiast and I'd like to set up an appointment to tour the building with someone who knows about the restoration process. They assure me they have someone on hand for just that request, and urge me to come any day, from 9am until 10pm. Their doors are always open.
The doors are, in fact, closed, when I arrive, so I tell the guard smiling outside why I'm here. This request puzzles him greatly, and he guides me in, looking for backup.
In 1992, the Church devoted over one million hours to restoring the Chateau Elysee to its 1929 state. The lobby is Rococo-perfect. Hand-painted frescoes cover the ceilings and most of the walls. Original crystal fixtures sprout from every surface, throwing their glittery patina over the room. Thick, large-footed furniture is upholstered in sumptuous Victorian florals. I sit in a burgundy armchair and stare up at the blue plaster sky, rimmed with clouds and columns.
A woman named Trish scurries to my side, asking if I'm indeed the person who wanted to know about the building's architecture. I ask her if she's the restoration expert. "Well, I know a little bit about the building," she says. "But I know a lot about Scientology, and that's who owns the building!"
But the restoration expert? "I'm not sure who you spoke to," she says. "But I could show you around. And you could learn a little about Scientology on the way?"
I'd only gotten a peek at the famous pink-and-green checkerboarded marble floors. And the French gardens I could barely see them from the street since they stretched canvas around the property's perimeter. "I'd love to learn about Scientology," I say.
Perfectly centered in the salmon recesses of the lobby's wide cream paneling are huge flat-screened monitors. The tour begins by walking from screen to screen, where wide-eyed people demonstrate Scientology's ability to overcome life's trauma in this case, attacks by German Shepherds. I pretend to watch but secretly memorize the carved gold woodwork along the wall.
My e-meter readings are taken in the corner of a sitting room with an ivory grand piano. When I'm forced to grip metal cylinders and recall a traumatic moment myself I conjure visions of vicious German Shepherds I observe how well the scarlet curtain swags match the red in the carpet. The auditing classrooms are upstairs, on a level painted entirely in pastoral motif, with glossy-eyed rabbits prancing along the chair rail. The world-famous purification program, a regimen which releases toxins so violently that students have been known to have drug flashbacks, takes place in a pristine black-and-white tiled spa.
When we step into the garden, I audibly gasp. This is the view I've strained to see over the jasmine-entwined fence for five years the Chateau Elysee, unobscured. Towering above neighboring cinderblock apartments, it's quite literally a castle. Turrets rise from fluffy Englemann oaks to spike the sky. A splashy fountain drowns out the hum of the Hollywood Freeway. The afternoon sun filters through 90-foot palms onto feather-thin ferns that surround an orangerie. I'm in the Loire, not Los Angeles. I feel dangerously close to being brainwashed with period detail.
In my reverie I point at a leafy balcony on the sixth floor. The top four floors are home to the hotel suites heaped with history. I have a list of which celebrity lived in which room each with original furnishings and I'd like to see Bogart's or Hepburn's, maybe. Trish shakes her head without dimming her smile. It's a functioning hotel for visiting Scientologists, she says. They're off-limits. The tour is over.
Trish guides me back into a tiny office where I politely decline several classes that will lead to enhanced professional growth. She looks troubled when I don't write my phone number down on her evaluation sheet. I get it: the door to Scientology will reopen if I pay $35 for "The Personal Efficiency Course." I stare out the window, where Eleanor Ince designed a moat to encircle her sculpted boxwoods, and seriously consider it.
Hubbard didn't live to see the completion of the Celebrity Centre's restoration, but he did author a 1955 initiative called Project Celebrity, in which he acknowledged his desire to recruit those who "entertain, fashion and take care of the world." The century of star power threaded through these buildings draws a direct line to the headline-snagging Scientologists of today. Even the consecrations concentrated in Hollywood's historic entertainment district milk every bit of their Walk of Fame locations: the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition in the Guaranty Building packs as much bang into its guided tour as the Hollywood Wax Museum down the street.
The Chateau Elysee has the same theme-park appeal; as a castle it rivals the one inhabited by Sleeping Beauty, a mere 39 miles away. But the fairy-tale perfection is also a physical representation of the hyper-idyllic world in which Scientologists so firmly believe. Scientology preaches "a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights..." A building frozen in the prime of its bygone era becomes a more believable refuge from the complications of modern life.
Perhaps then, the distinctive landmarks serve as a motivational tool? As students of Scientology ascend the Bridge towards total self-determinism, maybe they also climb the architectural ranks. They start as cashiers at the Hubbard bookstore on the ground floor of the Hotel Christie; the penthouse of the Chateau Elysee tantalizing them along with their dreams of becoming level-seven Operating Thetans. Brochures for Flag, the spiritual retreat center and Mecca of Scientology, promise "maximum case gain" at the palatial 1927 Mediterranean-revival Fort Harrison Hotel, in Clearwater, Florida.
Hubbard's legacy has ensured that Hollywood's Golden Age is safe albeit only for the enjoyment of those who have been saved themselves. Yet even our local government has failed to protect historic buildings from demise, and he's managed to elevate our secular spaces hotels, banks, theaters into untouchable sacred grounds. Given our track record, maybe it's for our own good.
And, like most of their tenets, Scientology has decided that what's good for Hollywood is good for everyone. They already have their eye on a lovely Art Deco masterpiece in a town near you.
Alissa Walker is a freelance design writer and co-editor of Unbeige. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado's journalism school and Portfolio Center. She writes from a home tucked into a hill below a 1928 Frank Lloyd Wright house and above the lights of Hollywood.