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24 Years Ago: Church of the Open Door Held Its Last Service

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, June 23, 2009, at 02:22PM
BIOLA, 1926 California Historical Society / USC Digital Archive []

A 1926 view of the Church of the Open Door, as viewed from the then-new Central Library.

On June 23, 1985, the Church of the Open Door held its last service inside the 4,000 seat auditorium of its 1915 facility on Hope street.

While the date signaled the end of one era for building, it also kicked off a lengthy fight over the fate of a classic Downtown structure.

The first service at the Church of the Open Door was held on October 10, 1915. The newly formed body met in the new auditorium of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, which had just completed its Hope street facility containing the main 4,000 seat auditorium, a smaller 1,100 seat auditorium and a pair of 13-story dormitory towers.

In 1933 the church bought the two auditoriums from the Bible Institute, paying it $350,000. The school retained the dormitory buildings and the rights to use the smaller auditorium as classroom space. The school purchased 50 acres in La Mirada in 1954, and in 1959 moved its operations there.

By the mid-1980s, attendance at the church had dwindled. Where the congregation once averaged over 3,000 in the mid-1950s, only 600 to 800 were attending when the church decided to look at relocation in 1983. It inked a deal to purchase land in Glendora, and in January of 1984 signed a contract to sell the church facility to a developer who planned to raze it and build an office tower for $14 million.

It was when that deal fell through that things began to get interesting.

In January of 1986, television preacher Gene Scott purchased the church building for $23 million after the original developer defaulted. "Over my dead body will a wrecking ball now ever hit the front of that church or tear down those signs," Scott told the L.A. Times, referring to the pair of iconic "Jesus Saves" signs atop the building.

On July 6, Scott held his first service in the building, which he named the Wescott Christian Center. Mayor Tom Bradley was among those in the capacity crowd. "I don't know if he had $23 or $23 million to his name, but he knew he was going to save this church," the Times quoted Bradley as telling the congregation. "He's my kind of man."

Whether for lack of money or not, Scott didn't pay up for long. In November, an Open Door member named Lehua May Garcia filed a lawsuit alleging that wording in the original deed to the property made it illegal for the Church of the Open Door to sell the structure.

Open Door officials alleged that the suit was Scott's attempt to back out of the original price and get the facility at a discount. The church began foreclosure proceedings against Scott, who it said was $7.5 million behind in payments for the site. In a deposition, Garcia admitted to having volunteered in Scott's organization before filing the suit and was married to someone who worked for Scott.

The legal block failed, and the building was slated to go to an auction sale on March 10, 1987.

Scott, though, had another trick up his sleeve. The day before the auction he transferred title to the building to a new corporation, the Hope Street Building Co. That company then immediately declared bankruptcy, triggering a halt to the auction.

A week later, a federal bankruptcy judge termed the move a "bad-faith bankruptcy" and allowed the Open Door to go ahead with a sale.

In what the Times termed a "fiery sermon," Scott declared his surrender on March 22, 1987.

The Open Door negotiated another $21 million sale to the original developer, but that was nullified when the city declared the building a historic monument, a designation Scott had fought to gain and Open Door had opposed.

It was the October Whittier Narrows earthquake that eventually doomed the then 72-year-old building. The Department of Building and Safety red-tagged the structure, though there was argument over how serious the damage truly was. The Church of the Open Door signed a deal to sell the site for $20 million.

The structure was eventually torn down to develop the 555 S. Hope tower, which now stands next to the Central Library.

And those "Jesus Saves" signs? Scott tried to buy them from Open Door, but the body was understandably reluctant to sell to someone with whom they had been involved in such a lengthy legal fight. According to an account given during an episode of Huell Howser's "Downtown" series, Scott ended up purchasing both of the signs from a scrapyard. They now stand atop the United Artists theatre on Broadway, which the preacher went on to occupy. That building remains the home of Scott's University Cathedral, though the preacher himself passed away in 2005.

Underneath a set of stairs, 555 S. Hope still contains a small ground-floor room dedicated to the Church of the Open Door. A video inside offers history of the site.


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