Residents of the Richmond neighborhood in Southeast Portland were relieved in 2006 when a group of well-dressed, clean-cut young people started showing up on weekends to remodel a run-down old house on the corner of SE 48th and Clinton.
The single family residential home had been getting nuisance complaints from the city for five years-twice for its weed-overgrown yard, then about an abandoned red VW van parked in the driveway, and later, for appearing abandoned, with a dead tree looming over the roof.
According to Multnomah County records, Richard and Kathy Dixon bought the house on May 20, 2005, for $133,600. The Dixons cleared four liens against the property over the earlier nuisance complaints, then applied for permits to convert the basement into a living space with a bathroom, bedroom, and sauna. Shortly afterward, the weekend remodelers started showing up.
"There were about 10 guys, occasionally this young woman there, and they were all really smiley and happy," says one neighbor, who refuses to be named. "At one point they were all singing along to early Beatles songs like 'Love Me Do'... but it seemed a bit too happy, you know?"
Neighbors were allegedly told different stories about what was happening to the house. One was told the men were converting the home into a "nature healing center," while another was informed they were rehabbing the house for one of the contractors' daughters. Someone else overheard the words "detox center," at one of the occasional barbeques held outside the home.
However, the neighbors say the house opened, apparently to the public, with a sign out front reading "Portland Mission of Scientology." The sign has since disappeared, following a zoning complaint made to the city in October 2006, about the house "running some sort of unknown business that creates a lot of vehicle traffic." But the house is still listed as the Portland Mission of Scientology on portlandscientologymission.org and a number of other Scientology websites.
In July 2006, the Dixons took out a loan from Bank of America against the value of the house, to carry out improvements-signing a deed of trust agreeing as the borrower to "occupy, establish, and use the property as [their] principle residence for at least one year," according to the document.
"But nobody has ever lived there, for sure," says another neighbor, who also refuses to be named. "I call them 'the fake family.'"
The Dixons are also the registered owners of another property in Southwest Portland-the voicemail greeting describes it as "The Dixon Residence."
"The [Southeast] house is zoned residential," says Sterling Bennett of the City of Portland's Planning and Zoning Department. "Anything other than household living would require conditional land use review. It sounds like there could potentially be a violation of zoning code."
The Mercury stopped by the home on SE 48th last Friday, February 15. The home was well lit, and by all appearances seemed to be operating as the Portland Mission of Scientology, rather than a single-family residence. (The property has been tax exempt since 2006, according to the Multnomah County Division of Assessment and Taxation-because a "nonprofit is now in control of the property"). On the mantelpiece in the front room, in plain sight from the porch, a row of Scientology books was proudly displayed, including Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard.
"Are you holding yourself back in life?" asked a sign on another wall, facing the black-framed "Creed of the Church of Scientology." Ten minutes after the Mercury began knocking on the front door, a collegiate young man with short, neat hair came upstairs and opened it. He couldn't talk to the press, he said.
A Church of Scientology spokesperson did not return our inquiries. Meanwhile Dixon sent an email on Monday, February 18, asking the Mercury to email him with any questions about the house, but he did not respond to these by press time the following day.
Dixon has been involved with Scientology since 1974, according to his personal Church of Scientology-themed website, which says he operates a successful remodeling business in Portland.
Some neighbors have no problem with the Scientologists moving in.
"They're a pretty regular bunch of people," says Tom Bailey, whose mother lives in the house across the street. "They haven't bothered anybody here that I know of."
But others say they're wary of the Church of Scientology's reputation, and of the five neighbors we spoke to, only Bailey was willing to be named.
"Part of me thinks they fixed up this dump and they don't bother anybody," says one neighbor. "But for an organization with a secretive and cultish reputation, I'm not really comfortable with the way they came into this community, telling everyone a dozen different stories."