When you’ve lived in Johannesburg all your life, the city becomes so familiar that you stop seeing it. The roads are ingrained and your routes habitual, wearing paths in your memory like calluses. The hadedas and taxis and shopping malls, the ceaseless stopping for red robots and going for green – all of it eventually takes on a sameness that grates. So there’s a certain pleasure when you discover an unexpected corner of your city’s history, and the place you call home reveals an intriguing past.
40 Hanneben Street in Cyrildene occupies a half acre or so of south east-facing Linksfield Ridge. You’ll find it from the north by taking the M1 and then the Riviera Road offramp, nipping through Houghton, taking a brief turn onto Louis Botha, then winding up the romantically named Sylvia’s Pass and turning left. Eventually you’ll find a handsome example of mid 20th century modernism, a large double storey house which reveals echoes of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier in its natural materials and clean lines.
This is the L Ron Hubbard heritage site, and between September 1960 and March 1961, it was home to one of the century’s most charismatic and controversial figures. It was here, states the brochure, that Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology “developed virtually every introductory line of our organizations – advancing into the public phase of Scientology and setting the course for a new civilization.”
The house and its interior are almost certainly the best-preserved example of an affluent Johannesburg home in the early 60s. Built for a Greek wood merchant in 1951, it boasts finishes in Japanese maple, Burmese teak and sandblasted Oregon pine. The parquet is quite exquisite. Outside the lounge and dining room, there’s a glorious view of Eastgate and Kensington, with the Hillbrow Tower and Ponte City poking up behind the hills to your right. Neither of those structures were visible, of course, during the era to which the house has been lovingly restored. Johannesburg has a habit of destroying its history in an endless palimpsest of improvement upon apparent improvement, and domestic remnants of this era have all but vanished. Killarney and Rosebank might be monuments to 50s apartment living, but apart from House Martienssen in Greenside, which dates from 1940, there are very few modernist houses, and none open to the public.
So L Ron Hubbard House is worth visiting just for the chance to picture Don Draper smoking in the lounge where Hubbard entertained staff and students and, according to the brochure, “audited members of his domestic staff”. You can imagine Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clinking martini glasses on the balcony, his perfect tan offset by the turquoise pool below. This small piece of vintage heaven should be a place of pilgrimage, not only for Scientologists, but Johannesburg’s hipsters too.
“They had to take down thick layers of plaster, and the parquet was under a carpet”,” says Puneet Dhamija, the director of L Ron Hubbard House and the man whose job it is to show visitors around. A chicken nugget-loving ex-vegetarian ex-Hindu, I first met him at a marketing breakfast last year; we followed one another on Twitter, as one does after these encounters, and ever since then he has reminded me, with good-humoured persistence, to come and visit.
Dhamija was born in Punjab, raised in Delhi and educated in Australia. First drawn into Scientology after using one of their popular study guides to help him through his undergraduate degree, he studied accounting in Melbourne and became a member of Sea Org – the Scientology equivalent of clergy, if you will. Dhamija was first sent to South Africa in 2007; last year he married a fellow Scientologist, a South African, after two weeks of dating. He has 3,296 friends on Facebook and most of the visitors he shows around the house get to know about it through social media.
The tour begins in the lounge before moving to the bedrooms, which have been given over to display cases filled with artifacts from Hubbard’s life. The story begins with his early years in Oklahoma, his travels around the world as a teenager, then his time as a prolific scriptwriter and author in Hollywood, before a stint in the navy during World War II. In 1950 he published Dianetics, which shot to the top of the best-sellers, enjoyed instant worldwide popularity, and catalysed the founding of the Church of Scientology.
Hubbard was clearly something of a polymath, and the books on display emphasise this. Music Maker Composer and Performer reads the title of one of a series of commemorative titles on display in the first room. Humanitarian Restoring Honor and Self-Respect sits next to it. Below are Adventurer Explorer Daring deeds and unknown realms and Horticulture for a greener world (in the late 1950s, Hubbard wired up plants to a device called the Hubbard Electropsychometer to demonstrate that they felt pain; this is the same device used to monitor subjects during spiritual counseling sessions known as auditing).
The most interesting room is Hubbard’s office. On display is the first typed sheet of the constitution he wrote for Rhodesia – proactively, in the boardroom bingo-speak we’d use today – as is the polite letter from Salisbury acknowledging receipt. In the corner is the original bust sculpted by Coert Steynberg in Pretoria, a copy of which is now kept in every Scientology organisation around the world.
“Dear Scientologist, Peace for Africa could depend on Scientology” begins one framed letter, dated October 1, 1960. Dhamija says it was the challenges presented by apartheid that drew Hubbard to South Africa. Because blacks and whites were not allowed to fraternize in the Church of Scientology’s centre in Johannesburg, another solution would have to be found. It was certainly a pivotal time in South Africa’s history, when the country was about to leave the Commonwealth, become a republic, and head ever-further down the cul de sac that was grand apartheid.
Hubbard was evidently concerned about Africa. “Having once taken responsibility for the development of Africa,” reads a quote etched into a brass plaque, “the white cannot turn back but must go onto a final success, for at this writing the task is only partially done and arrested in mid flight it cannot remain stable but must fall back and collapse or go on and win.”
Under the bedrooms are the rooms where Dhamija keeps DVDs, brochures and other Scientology material, including the complete collection of Hubbard’s talks at the South African Anatomy Congress. Nobody knows for sure how many Scientologists are in South Africa, Dhamija says, although it’s growing, and a church will be opening in Pretoria soon.
I scan through the brochures. Pseudoscience: Psychiatry’s false diagnosis reads the title of one. Schizophrenia: Psychiatry’s for-profit disease! declares another. Others cover Criminon, Scientology’s prisoner education and rehabilitation programme; there are also copies of The Way to Happiness, Hubbard’s non-religious moral code, in multiple languages. A framed quote hangs on the wall above collections of Hubbard’s science fiction novels. “From southern Africa will spring the next great civilization on this planet,” it reads, “and it will succeed because it has Scientology and all its technology on its side.”
Dhamija unfurls a large poster titled “The Bridge to Total Freedom”. It’s a remarkably intricate chart detailing all of the courses one must do and auditing one must undergo in order to reach OT Eligibility, the highest level one possible in South Africa currently. OT stands for Operating Thetan; the plan is that eventually training in OT I – OT V will be available at Kyalami Castle, bought by the Church in 2008 and still used as a hotel and conference venue. (Anyone aspiring to reach levels OT VI and up will have to travel to the ship the Scientologists use for their most advanced training.)
Before I leave, I sign the guest book. I scan the names with interest; most of visitors are Joburgers, with one Swede. “A Scientologist,” Dhamija explains, as he hands me a clutch of Scientology DVDs. Driving away, I reflect on how strange it is that Joburg of all places should have played such a pivotal role in the evolution of an organization now best known for its association with Jon Travolta and Tom Cruise. This city, so familiar, still has the power to surprise.
– Sarah Britten. An edited version of this piece appeared in Sunday Times Lifestyle February 24 2013. To visit L Ron Hubbard House, go to www.lrhjoburg.org or find Puneet Dhamija on Facebook.