Dallas Morning News: Scientologists on the Move

Source: Dallas Morning News
Date: October 23, 2005

Church leaving quirky Dallas mansion for office complex

October 23, 2005

By COLLEEN McCAIN NELSON / The Dallas Morning News

When the Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre moved to Far East Dallas, the neighbors were nervous.

Visions of traffic clogging the tree-lined streets and rumors about religious rituals had some homeowners on edge.

Now, after spending five years in a salmon-colored mansion at Buckner Boulevard and Dixie Lane, the Scientologists are moving to the suburbs.

And many of their neighbors are sorry to see them go.

"They've been very friendly," said Jim Depetris, who lives next door to the Celebrity Centre. "We were worried going in, but they've been very nice."

Buoyed by growing interest in Scientology, the Dallas church is expanding, moving from a quirky, 10,000-square-foot estate near White Rock Lake to a 42,000-square-foot office building in Las Colinas.

"We just outgrew the space. We have lots of new things happening ... and we're getting new members," said the Rev. Theresa Dolaway, the Celebrity Centre's executive director. "We have to get bigger quarters to accommodate that."

The church's new home will be a central organization for a multistate region, providing additional services and helping a larger population.

While Scientology officials are eager to expand, they said they would be sad to leave their eccentric pink manse.

Built in the 1940s, the house called Grandwick has been home to a bed-and-breakfast and a wedding chapel over the years.

When the church bought the property in 2000, the ornate abode was outfitted for entertaining, Ms. Dolaway said. "The ballroom featured a large Jacuzzi and was adorned with mirror-covered poles. "It was pretty gaudy," she said. "We toned it down a little bit."

The hot tub and the disco lights are gone now, and church members study silently in the remodeled room.

Throughout the Celebrity Centre, glimpses of the house's past meld with the modern elements of Scientology.

Sparkling chandeliers and elaborately patterned carpets decorate offices brimming with Scientology books and study materials. Personality and IQ tests are administered in the former kitchen, and stress tests are given in a refurbished bedroom downstairs. Scientologists can study and seek spiritual growth at the Celebrity Centre.

Despite the name, neighbors report few, if any, celebrity sightings during the last five years.

"Once in a while, we see a limo and a tent, but that's about it," Mr. Depetris said.

The church treats everyone equally, Ms. Dolaway said, and members' privacy is protected when they visit. Although church officials won't discuss celebrity members' comings and goings, they do acknowledge that high-profile Scientologists have spurred growth.

When Tom Cruise jumped for joy on Oprah Winfrey's couch in May, the phone wouldn't stop ringing at Dallas' Celebrity Centre.

"It really started going nuts about then," Ms. Dolaway said. "We had requests for 800 personality tests in one week."

'Genuinely nice' She estimates that more than 3,000 people have taken Scientology courses at the Celebrity Centre.

Star Scientologists such as Mr. Cruise and John Travolta are good role models and "genuinely nice people," Ms. Dolaway said. The example they set compels many to learn more about their religion, she said.

Ms. Dolaway dismisses any suggestion that Mr. Cruise's televised rants against psychiatry and anti-depressants have been anything less than positive.

The publicity has "all been good," she said. Those who criticize Scientology either misunderstand its teachings or "they have something to hide," Ms. Dolaway said.

The church, founded by the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, has endured a steady stream of criticism, some suggesting that Scientology is a money-making cult.

"People think we're about converting people," Ms. Dolaway said. "We're more about making a better civilization."

She said the church's focus is on providing people with tools that will allow them to be better spiritual individuals.

Even some of the Celebrity Centre's neighbors in this quiet neighborhood with sprawling brick houses said they weren't sure what to believe before the Scientologists moved in. Rumors about rattlesnakes appearing in homeowners' mailboxes circulated on Dixie Lane.

"But none of that's true, of course," Mr. Depetris said.

In general, the center has been an ideal neighbor – pleasant and unobtrusive, said Wendy Popadynetz, who lives across the street.

When she moved to the neighborhood a year ago, Ms. Popadynetz braced herself for church bells and traffic jams, but she was greeted with silence and a manageable flow of cars.

"I still don't know what they do over there," she said. "But I'm sorry to hear that they're leaving because they're very quiet and peaceful."

Rooms with a view

Church officials are preparing to move into a $2.6 million Las Colinas office overlooking a golf course. In February, they'll trade their one-of-a-kind estate for a beige building that blends in with the banks and medical offices down the street. Although the exterior is unremarkable, extensive renovations are planned to ensure that the church's new home is a comfortable fit.

On Dixie Lane, neighbors view the "For Sale" sign in front of the Celebrity Centre with a bit of apprehension.

Mr. Depetris, a real estate lawyer, said he hopes the Grandwick estate will return to being a single-family home, but there's no telling what the unusual mansion might be used for next.

For five years, though, the Church of Scientology was a good neighbor, he said.

"We kind of hate to see them go."

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