Empire-building has been part of many a religious group's strategy throughout history. But no one does it better than Scientology. The documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which debuts on HBO tonight, offers the first in-depth survey of Scientology's practices, including its ongoing quest to acquire high-profile real estate.
Since it was founded in 1955, Scientology has purchased hundreds, possibly thousands of buildings. Just how many is tough to fact-check due to the church's many tenuously connected affiliates, but representatives did confirm to the Hollywood Reporter that the church bought 62 properties globally just in a five-year period between 2006 and 2011. The church owns several rural compounds which are more befitting of a cult, like Gold Base, the 520-acre former resort in the desert east of LA which has been turned into a training facility. But many of Scientology's most prominent holdings are found on busy corridors in the center of cities worldwide.
While these urban enclaves in places with high population density help the church increase its visibility -- the oversized garish signage helps, too -- it turns out there is also an architectural agenda behind these purchases. Representatives of the church have commented that it is indeed part of the church's strategy to buy and rehabilitate ageing historic buildings, which in turn helps them to be seen as valuable community partners. Of course, this plan doesn't always pan out.
So you can be a more informed audience member at your local Going Clear viewing party, here are some of Scientology's most audacious real estate assets. All photos (and their corresponding embellishments) courtesy of the Church of Scientology. Except for the top image, which is from the film.
Church of Scientology Information Center | Hollywood, California
The church owns at least two dozen historic properties in the LA area, including four of the largest buildings on Hollywood Boulevard. Some, like the former Hollywood Savings and Loan building seen here are blatant in their evangelical intentions, others like the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum aren't as obvious. But it's not all gorgeous Beaux Arts towers: The church also owns plenty of crumbling stucco apartments which the it to house its newest recruits and shuttle them in unlabeled buses to the towers for work. Director Paul Haggis, whose very public break from the church is featured in the film, says he lived with four other people in one of these apartments when he first moved to LA.
Celebrity Centre International | Hollywood, California
Perhaps the most famous Scientology address is this 1927 replica of a French-Normandy castle at the base of the Hollywood Hills. Originally named the Château Élysée, the hotel was built for actors who needed long-term accommodations while shooting films nearby and hosted most of the major stars of the era. Now it's an event center and provides housing for Scientology's many industry acolytes. For the adventurous: Anyone can have brunch in the building's Renaissance Restaurant.
The Church of Scientology of Los Angeles | Los Angeles, California
Just Hollywood-adjacent is the church's LA-based headquarters, housed in the 1976 Cedars of Lebanon Hospital (the building is known as "Scientology Hospital" to locals). In 2010 the church restored the building, paved an adjacent street with cobblestones and named it L. Ron Hubbard Way, and painted the complex in a bright Scientology blue. If you catch the giant sign on the roof at just the right angle (the image at the top of the story), it lines up perfectly with the Hollywood Sign. Coincidence???
The Church of Scientology of San Francisco | San Francisco, California
Scientology's purchase of landmark buildings around the world began in earnest in the 1960s. In fact, it was in 1968 when the church renovated the original Transamerica Building in San Francisco, a famous 1909 structure with its signature flatiron shape. As in many cities, this Scientology center is situated in a high-traffic pedestrian area which is also a popular tourist destination.
Founding Church of Scientology | Washington DC
In 1955, L. Ron Hubbard himself negotiated the purchase of the first US outpost of the church, just a few blocks from the White House. This was another brilliant real estate move which helped to position the group as a legitimate religion: The building Scientology purchased is located on "Church Row," alongside the headquarters of many other religious denominations.
The Fort Harrison | Clearwater, Florida
Although Hollywood might be the spiritual heart of Scientology, the official global headquarters consumes the downtown of the Florida city of Clearwater (yes, Clearwater). The largest church complex on the planet serves as a pilgrimage site and religious retreat, staffed by over 1000 followers. The 1920s hotel had fallen into disrepair when it was purchased by the church in the 1970s, and in 2009, it opened as one of the first renovated buildings completed in the downtown.
Flag Building | Clearwater, Florida
Opened in 2013, Scientology's world headquarters is one of its few major buildings which was constructed from the ground up (yep, it just looks historic), although it has taken over 20 years to complete the building due to construction and permitting delays. Also called the Super Power Building, it is the largest building in Clearwater, consuming a full city block, and includes amenities like an anti-gravity simulator and something called a pain station. Ouch.