The Church of Scientology says it’s building a huge house of worship in Center City.

The controversial church has been saying that about its Chestnut Street property for a long time, though.

The church, which has had its local headquarters on Race Street for decades, purchased the former Cunningham Piano building on the 1300 block of Chestnut in 2007. The 15-story building was built in 1924.

In December, Scientology spokesperson Karin Pouw said the church has “applied for all needed permits with the city, and we expect to make substantial progress sometime in 2019.”

In December of 2011, Pouw told the Inquirer that the building could possibly open in the spring of 2013. In 2016, she said the building was in the “planning stages.”

Pouw could not be reached for comment Wednesday and declined to give an exact date for a ribbon cutting when reached recently by Philadelphia Magazine.

“The building will house the new Church of Scientology of Philadelphia, and will service its parishioners and the community,” she told the magazine.

Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. Born in Bucks County, Miscavige spent his early years in Willingboro and was introduced to the world of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard by his father at a young age.

David Miscavige with his wife, Shelly, before Super Bowl XV in 1981. Miscavige and his father were rabid Eagles fans and went to New Orleans to see the game.
RON MISCAVIGE SR.
David Miscavige with his wife, Shelly, before Super Bowl XV in 1981. Miscavige and his father were rabid Eagles fans and went to New Orleans to see the game.

Miscavige, a devout Eagles fan, has been accused of being physically and verbally abusive to underlings, accusations the church has long denied. His father, Ron Sr., has left the church and accused his son of sending private detectives to snoop on him.

Miscavige’s biggest accomplishment was gaining tax-exempt status for the Church of Scientology in 1993, assuring that both the Race and Chestnut locations would not be taxed. In 2017, the Inquirer reported that the city was taking a hard look at nonprofit tax exemptions, and according to Rebecca Lopez Kriss of the city’s Department of Revenue, Scientology’s tax exemption for the Chestnut Street site was revoked that year.

“We’re currently in litigation,” Lopez Kriss said.

According to the Department of Revenue’s website, the church currently has a $373,722.85 tax bill.

After the 2007 purchase, Scientology’s Chestnut Street building racked up violations — from broken windows to graffiti issues and unsafe conditions. The church, according to city records, later addressed all the violations. In December, the church received a zoning permit to combine the tower and a one-story building into one lot “for use as religious assembly.”

A now-defunct website for the Chestnut Street building, dubbed the “Philadelphia Freedom Org,” included renderings of a chapel, bookstore, and office for Scientology founder Hubbard, who died in 1986. That website had also sought donations. A $8,008 donation would have come with a lapel pin, a paperweight, and some photographs of Hubbard, along with a name on a plaque.

In 2016, Le Bus Bakery founder David Braverman, a former member, called the Chestnut Street tower a “catastrophically stupid idea.” He said the Race Street location had fewer than 50 members, most of whose time was spent fund-raising for Chestnut Street.

Initial reports said the sale price of the Chestnut Street building was $7.85 million, but Philadelphia property records now say $6.2 million.

Pouw, in 2011, said the “Philadelphia/New Jersey area” had about 10,000 Scientologists.

Scientology is known for its celebrity adherents, including the actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Elisabeth Moss. It’s considered a cult by many former members, one that rules with secrecy, isolation, and violence. The latest celebrity to break ranks is Leah Remini, who hosts a documentary series about the church on A&E.