Kansas City skyline gets a new addition
If you’ve never heard of an Ideal Org, you don’t know the Church of Scientology.
On the church’s website, portraits of these buildings are captured in dramatic twilight in about 30 U.S. cities and dozens more around the globe, from Dublin, Ireland, to San Francisco; Minneapolis to Perth, Australia. They seem to be mostly located in urban areas, city centers and sometimes, in renovated historic buildings.
Soon, there will be a portrait of Kansas City’s own Ideal Org.
Seven floors up on the roof at 1801 Grand Blvd., the emergence of a single word, “SCIENTOLOGY,” sent a buzz (if not shock waves) through social media earlier this month.
“Gawd no,” wrote Kyla Wilson, publicly posting one of hundreds of opinions on The Star’s Facebook site the morning of Jan. 9. By afternoon, the smaller words “CHURCH OF” already had been fastened to a higher tier of signage, completing the message to curious motorists and Crossroads pedestrians below.
One passerby posted the obvious, if with a hint of chagrin: “The Constitution gives us freedom of religion, so...”
Few recalled that the church had bought the City National Bank building in 2007 for a reported $4 million. And that for 11 years, it sat waiting for its grand rebirth as an “Ideal Organization.”
The church’s main website says new Ideal Orgs are “dedicated each month,” with one in Detroit — with a similar rooftop sign — holding a grand opening in October.
What will it mean for Kansas City and those in the Scientology church here? The answer is unclear.
‘Public welcome,’ sort of
For the last 16 years, the Church of Scientology has quietly occupied two floors of a low-slung storefront at Main and 39th streets. A neighboring H&R Block outlet commands more attention. A yellow van for hauling “Volunteer Ministers” around the region sits in the parking lot off the church’s back door.
And beside that door, the words “Public Welcome.”
Taped on a hallway wall, a recent notice alerted church members that “we got okay to brief public on specific strategies that we are about to launch.”
But when a reporter for The Star arrived unannounced at the briefing, spokesman Matt Ward said: “You’re more than public.”
He said the organization was not ready to roll out anything for news media. Then Ward escorted the reporter out of the facility, past maybe a dozen gathering members.
He said the church was too busy finishing the downtown building’s renovation to consider The Star’s requests to tour it.
Last year, Scientology enthusiasts attending local fundraising celebrations numbered at least 50, as suggested in group photos and videos they posted on a “Kansas City Ideal Org” Facebook page.
The site has 377 followers. It shows many dancing, singing, donning costumes and congratulating one another as their individual gifts to the Org climb into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Such moves out of modest office digs and into fetching new buildings have been happening since the early 2000s. But critics such as Tony Ortega speculate that once it opens, the new Ideal Org will likely appear dormant — like some of the church’s other refurbished showcases.
A one-time Kansas Citian and author of the anti-Scientology blog The Underground Bunker, Ortega told The Star: “In a year or two, that place in Kansas City will be dead. Then the financial challenge will be keeping the lights on.”
The charge was echoed by former Scientology architect Paul Burkhart. He told ex-member and actress Leah Remini on a recent episode of her scathing A&E documentary, “Scientology and the Aftermath,” that a few years into an Ideal Org’s operation, most of the buildings stand empty but for the furniture and some staffers.
While Scientology’s website boasts of more than 10,000 locations — worship places, missions and “related organizations and affiliated groups” in 165 countries — its detractors have long smacked down the church’s membership claims.
Still there’s no disputing that the church has appealed to the rich and famous: Hollywood stars Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss are among Scientology’s most vocal followers, along with singer-songwriter Beck.
Launched in the 1950s by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and his admirers, Scientology mixes a spiritual brew of technology, metaphysics, the universe, self-worth and emotional wellness. Scientologists practice Hubbard’s brand of so-called Dianetics, which he captured in a best-selling book that has sold millions of copies.
But the organization’s notoriety has largely come from condemning psychiatric medicine and smearing defectors who go public.
The group’s continued push to purchase large urban facilities have raised questions about the church’s motives, including avoiding income and property taxes.
Ortega, formerly with the Village Voice newspaper and co-author of “Battlefield Scientology,” said he was unaware that the church had any meaningful presence in Kansas City while he worked here as a journalist from 2003 to 2005.
“I started writing about Scientology 10 years earlier, including in Los Angeles, and I didn’t write a single story about them in Kansas City because there was nothing to write,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m not sure I even looked them up.”
Gala to come?
The new addition to Kansas City’s skyline required city approval, which a division of the Planning and Development Department granted with a permit issued in October.
With rare exceptions, the city allows elevated, illuminated roof signs only on downtown structures, said Joe Rexwinkle of the department’s development management office.
Under Kansas City rules, such new signs can rise no higher than 26 feet above the roof’s tallest parapet (or vertical ledge), stretch no wider than 50 percent of the building’s width and meet weight and design standards allowing the signs “to be supportable by the roof, for safety reasons,” said Rexwinkle.
The Scientology sign, which is unlit for now, makes full use of those margins but still lacks the grandeur of the Crossroads’ iconic Western Auto rooftop sign, which was grandfathered in before size restrictions were worked into codes.
Rexwinkle said signage rules for groups presenting themselves as religious are no different than for other entities with downtown buildings.
With office furniture arriving and interior lights aglow on the upper floors, the future Church of Scientology may include classrooms, a chapel and visitors area lined with informational video screens, if it replicates Ideal Orgs in other communities.
Not long after the sign was raised, contractors threw a white tarp over the letters.
The covering presumably will be pulled off for the 1928 structure’s grand re-opening, a date for which has not been announced. The occasion is expected to be a glitzy gala featuring leader David Miscavige and other Scientologists.
When the 18th and Grand site opens, it “will house the new Church of Scientology of Kansas City” and will service parishioners in Missouri, Kansas and nearby states, Ward said in an email. “It is similar to hundreds of churches that exist around the world …
“We look forward to working in the community with our social betterment programs (drug education, human rights initiative and literacy programs) and providing a central location for all our parishioners.”