Key Points:

The Church of Scientology is stepping up its image and presence here, spending $10 million to buy a prominent Auckland building.

The church, which is popular with Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, will move around 100 staff into the building perched above the Southern Motorway at Grafton and run courses from there.

It will soon leave Panmure's industrial strip for the building now occupied by the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, which has two other campus sites.

The college fitted the building out with art studios, a library, darkrooms, seminar rooms and a lecture hall but it is looking for new premises.

Soon, the church will be preaching the teachings of L Ron Hubbard and the dianetics spiritual healing technology from the property.

Real estate consultants DTZ handled the sale and spokesman Kevin Richards said the church paid $10 million for the building at 136 Grafton Rd and his firm would manage the property. The building was owned by a private partnership which had owned it for just a few years.

"The building was not on the market and they had to pay a premium to get it," Richards said. The art school is looking to lease new premises.

The property is listed on the Historic Places Trust's register as a category two building.

It is also listed on Auckland City's historic schedule as a category B building.

Church spokesman Mike Ferriss said yesterday his organisation operated from a building at 532-534 Ellerslie-Panmure Highway and the church had about 5000 members nationally.

"We have been searching for a suitable property for a number of years with an emphasis on heritage properties. Our interest in 136 Grafton Rd started when one of our founding members suggested that it would be the ideal building for us. That was almost a year ago."

Ferriss said the church would fully renovate and restore the building over two years and expected to move in once the work was completed.

"The New Zealand Scientology Church was formally established in January 1955, making it the first outside of the United States and the second oldest in the world. People from all over the country come to the church in Auckland for services. The new facility should be able to cater for 200 or so students and about 100 staff."

DTZ said the building was opened as Trinity College in March 1929 and was used as a training facility for ministers of the Methodist Church. This stopped in 1972 when the college was leased to the Education Department and, since 1984, the building had served as premises for Whitecliffe, a private education institution.

Ferriss said the building was a comfortable fit with his organisation's international property portfolio.

"We have won several awards for heritage building restoration in Los Angeles and our building programme is part of a worldwide project of establishing new church buildings. Our philosophy of restoring heritage buildings is about creating links from the past into a stronger, brighter future," he said.

The church says on its New Zealand website that it has more than 5000 churches, missions and groups ministering to tens of millions of people across 156 countries in 54 languages.

Scientologists provide help, guidance and assistance in thousands of cities, villages and communities, it says.

Wide Reach

* Scientology has about 5000 churches worldwide.

* The first was built in Los Angeles on what is now called L. Ron Hubbard Way, off Sunset Boulevard.

* Now the organisation is expanding in Auckland, buying a historic building in Grafton.