New role awaits a historic eyesore

Church of Scientology buys former Alexandra Hotel

Boston Globe/January 30, 2008

The Church of Scientology of Boston Inc. has bought the historic Alexandra Hotel building at Washington Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the South End and plans to relocate its local headquarters from the Back Bay, following extensive renovations. more stories like this

The sales price of the Alexandra - ravaged by fire in the 1993, decayed, empty, and recently eluding City Hall's hopes that it would become residences - was not disclosed by the Rev. Gerard Renna, the top Scientology representative in Boston.

The church, founded by L. Ron Hubbard and counting among its members actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, "pledges to transform the hotel to its original grace and elegance," it said in a news release.

Advised by Staubach Co. of New England LLC, the church bought the former 50-room hotel, at 1759-1769 Washington St., and an adjacent building on Washington. The church already has a storefront presence a few doors down on Washington.

City officials said the seller was Macedonia Realty Trust, which had owned the building for several years and had presented several plans to renovate the building and create condominiums.

Built in 1875, the Alexandra was a luxuriously appointed hotel in Ruskinian Gothic style. It faded in prominence when the elevated transit line was built along Washington Street in 1900. It closed in the 1960s and then was gutted by a fire in 1993.

The city had worked hard to get the prominent structure redeveloped, especially since the MBTA's Orange Line was relocated in the 1980s.

"The city's been tortured with this eyesore for so long," said Renna, who has been with the Church of Scientology in Boston since before it opened its current headquarters on Beacon Street in 1974.

Randi Lathrop, the Boston Redevelopment Authority's director of community planning and former head of the Mayor's Washington Street Improvement Task Force, said that as of a few weeks ago the city thought the building's former owners might redevelop it into condominiums, with extensive ground-floor retail space.

Because the building is so prominent, situated at a major intersection, City Hall wanted shops opened there to generate street-level business activity for the neighborhood. It is not yet clear what the church will install on the first floor, but after searching for a new home in Boston for three years, church officials clearly liked the visible location.

"This is a very prominent building - it's one of the criteria. They've found it with this," said Brian Smallman, vice president of Staubach of New England.

Staubach has done other work for the church around the country and will be project manager on the design and redevelopment.

"It could be an absolutely gorgeous building by the time they're done with it, and they do everything first rate," Smallman said.

The building had been for sale in recent years, at one point with a price tag of $3.5 million, said Lathrop, but the sales have always fallen through.

The city at one point went to court to have a receiver appointed for the property, because it had languished and rotted for so long, but later relented.

The building is not itself designated as a Boston Landmark by the city Landmarks Commission, but it is part of the South End district, which does have landmark designation. Any changes to the exterior of the building would need advance approval.

The project will also need approval under the BRA's small-project development process, which is expected to take months.

No architect has been selected, Smallman said; officials at church headquarters in Los Angeles will be involved in the process and have many decisions to make about the final configuration.

"The city and the mayor, especially, have focused on this as his pride corner," Lathrop said, referring to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "It's a very important building to the district. The good news is the church will spend millions of dollars on the building."

The Church of Scientology is based on what followers call founder Hubbard's "technology" and its ability to help them understand more about themselves and others. The church acknowledges the controversy it creates on its own extensive website. "As Scientologists have openly and effectively advocated social reform causes, they have become the target of attacks," the site says. The church has battled with the media, the Internal Revenue Service, and supporters of certain psychiatric drugs and treatment.

Renna said he answers "ecclesiastically" to the mother church in Los Angeles.

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