The Church of Scientology plans to open a street-level cafe, bookstore, and chapel as part of its renovation of the 19th-century Hotel Alexandra, a long-faded Gothic beauty that for years has sat mostly empty at a prominent Boston crossroads.
The revived building would add more street life to a corner of the South End that is seeing more activity, and signals that the city's desire to have the neighborhood revitalized after the removal of the elevated Orange Line on Washington Street is finally coming to pass.
The neighborhood is slowly beginning to take on the trappings of the more gentrified parts of the South End, though the area remains dotted with empty storefronts. A number of new restaurants, including fine dining venues, recently opened on Washington Street, adding to the South End's reputation as a haven for foodies.
Residents and merchants said fixing up the Alexandra is key to solidifying the neighborhood's makeover.
"It is going to add to the neighborhood and complete the corner," said Bill Raymer, owner of Restoration Resources antique store on Washington Street. "It will look like it did in the 1800s. It's an eyesore now."
The church bought the building two years ago to be its New England headquarters. It now expects to submit a renovation plan to the city in early spring, and has already given neighborhood and business groups previews. The church will restore the elegant facade, which has columns framing the ground-floor entrances and sandstone blocks in contrasting shades above. The upper floors will have classrooms, a library, and meeting spaces, and the Scientologists plan to add a sixth floor that will be set back from the front of the building.
"This is going to revive a building that has been largely abandoned and empty for over 30 years," said Marc LaCasse, the church's lawyer. "It will activate the street with pedestrians and lights. People will be coming and going seven days a week."
While a construction timetable has not been established, Church of Scientology officials expect work to begin shortly after city permits are granted.
When it opened on the corner of Washington Street and Massachusetts Avenue in 1875, the Alexandra was a meeting place for Boston high society at the junction of the city's then most important thoroughfares. In the early 20th century, the property fell into decline and was turned into a rooming house.
A 1993 fire damaged the interior, and the upper floors are boarded up. South End residents, community leaders, and city officials have long felt the neglected building was a detriment to revitalization of the area, particularly the stretch of Washington Street that leads into Roxbury's Dudley Square.
Linda Rubin Royer, executive director of the Washington Gateway Main Street program, said the restored building will make the area safer. "They will have people there at all hours, and that will mean less crime."
The Church of Scientology has rehabilitated a number of historic buildings in US and European cities for use as church centers. Scientology's first church in Boston opened in the Back Bay in 1971. It plans to sell its current building on Beacon Street after relocating to the Alexandra.
The preference for restoring old buildings is symbolic, according to Graham Parker, executive director of the Church of Scientology-Boston. "Scientology itself is about restoring life," Parker said.
Founded in the early 1950s by author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology stresses the betterment and rehabilitation of the human spirit. Some of Scientology's beliefs and practices have been controversial, in particular its stance that psychiatry is destructive and should be abolished.
The cafe and bookstore in the restored hotel will be open to the public. Parker said that while information about Scientology will be available in the cafe and store, he expects the establishments to draw people who are not necessarily interested in Scientology. "I don't think we'll compete with Dunkin' Donuts, though," he added.
Joe Bornstein, owner of Olympia Flower Store on Washington Street, said, "I would have preferred to see more of a retail presence on the first floor, but at this point, any renovation is a good thing."
The Church of Scientology has been working to connect with the South End for several years. The church opened a storefront tutoring center next to the Alexandra several years ago and also runs a gun buyback program. Volunteers from the church helped with a recent park cleanup.
Residents and merchants said they have no issues with the church's ownership, and are instead focused on the benefits they see coming from the renovation.
"Once the building is renovated, it will be a good thing," said Natalie van Dijk Carpenter, owner of Lekker Unique Home Furnishings on Washington Street.
"What I think about Scientology doesn't matter."