02 May 2012

Ivan Koop Kuper : The Maharishi's Bad Houston Karma

The Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: The late Houston real estate mogul.

The Heaven on Earth Inn:
Bad Karma in Houston
The Guru’s utopian vision somehow took a turn in the wrong direction.
By Ivan Koop Kuper / The Rag Blog / May 2, 2012

HOUSTON -- The 1970s were a time in Houston’s history when the population began to boom and employment opportunities in the petrochemical arena saw no limits as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo.

To accommodate this influx of mostly northerners to the “Bayou City,” developers borrowed large sums of venture capital from lending institutions hoping to cash in on the new-found prosperity, and new construction could be seen rising from the barren landscape from the suburbs to the inner city. In addition, several mid-rise hotels were erected in the immediate downtown area.

By the mid-1980s, as oil prices fell, Houston experienced its first major recession which put a halt to job growth and adversely affected the city's real estate market. It was a time when businesses closed and a significant portion of the population left town in mass for job opportunities elsewhere. It was also a time when investors simply walked away from their mortgage commitments and their real property holdings.

Heaven on Earth

An abandoned hotel on the southern fringe of downtown Houston with the physical address of 801 St. Joseph Parkway began its life as a Holiday Inn in 1971. By 1984 the Holiday Inn was sold to the Days Inn, a hotel chain created by eccentric real estate mogul and Christian philanthropist, Cecil B. Day. It was sold again 1992 to the Maharishi Global Development Fund for a price tag of $2 million and reincarnated into the Heaven on Earth Inn.

The Maharishi Global Development Fund is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization owned by the 1960s Indian mystic and former spiritual guide to the Beatles, the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The 600-room hotel was purchased with the intent of having a spiritual sanctuary and a learning center for members of the Transcendental Meditation movement, complete with an upscale vegetarian restaurant, in downtown Houston.

The Guru’s utopian vision somehow took a turn in the wrong direction over the next three years, and by 1995, and in need of extensive renovation, the HOE evolved into an extended-stay residential shelter for Houston’s homeless and the underemployed. It also became a magnet for individuals with backgrounds in petty crime and drug abuse.

By 1998, the city of Houston forced the hotel to close its doors for safety reasons and building code violations. The hotel has been vacant and for sale for the 14 years since it ceased operating. Due to the need for extensive renovation, including asbestos abatement, the sale of this 33-story mid-rise edifice has become cost prohibitive and the building remains an eyesore on Houston’s skyline.

Maharishi's legacy : Heaven on Earth no more.

Beirut Hilton

Timothy Bleakie, a former resident of the Heaven on Earth in the mid-1990s, remembers what life was like living in this unusual extended-stay hotel where the elevators seldom worked and room break-ins were a frequent occurrence.

“Seven to eight of us bicycle messengers occupied the entire 14th floor back in 1995,” said the former HOE resident and well-known downtown Houston bicycle courier. “We paid $275 per month with double occupancy and our utilities were included. We mainly kept to ourselves because, believe it or not, there was a lot of crack and heroin use among the tenants back then and there was a lot of crime as a result.”

“The owners thought they would attract a higher caliber of resident by offering on-site lessons in Transcendental Meditation, but that wasn’t the case. Very few of the tenants took them up on the offer. It was an ill-conceived business project. The average stay was about one month but I ended up living there for six. I became a model tenant and I even ended up maintaining the swimming pool on the 7th floor.”

The Heaven on Earth was one of several investment properties purchased by the MGDF throughout the United States in the 1990s that included other vacant hotels in Chicago, Tulsa, Detroit, Hartford, and Avon Lake, Ohio. Like the one in Houston, these spiritual sanctuaries and learning centers were christened “peace palaces” whose mission was to “improve humanities’ global consciousness” as well as realize a substantial profit.

Ironically, near the end of its demise, the HOE became known as the “Beirut Hilton” by its residents and downtown neighbors because of its rundown appearance and its resemblance to the infamous, bullet-riddled hotel in war-torn Lebanon. According to Houston Police Department records, by 1998, the HOE had been the scene of multiple drug busts, assaults, and one homicide.

“It got rougher toward the end of my six month stay,” Bleakie said. “Most of the tenants didn’t have any money and were substance abusers. By the time I moved in, the vegan restaurant had already closed. They were still offering classes in TM on the top floor but very few tenants took them up on the offer.”

“There was a lot of paranoia among the residents regarding break-ins. The room keys were very easy to duplicate and you could easily enter a room with a credit card or driver’s license. There was a man who lived there with his daughter and he was a junkie. The man used to trick out his daughter just to pay the rent.”

Because of the Maharishi’s strict eastern religious beliefs and the fact that he subscribed to the principles of Vedic architecture, the residents were not allowed to use the actual entrance to the building. These architectural principles govern the orientation of a building and designate from what direction one may enter. “The residents were forbidden from using the main entrance on the building’s south side,” Bleakie explained, “so we used a small service entrance facing west on Milam Street instead.”

“My biggest fear was that one day there would be a fire and we wouldn’t be able to get out. I remember that all the elevators quit working for two weeks one time and there weren’t any phones in the rooms, only in the lobby. There was also a woman in a wheel chair that lived on the 25th floor. She had to have her food brought to her until they were fixed. I remember that the cops and the fire department were there quite often.”

Spiritual default

In 2004, the Houston Business Journal reported that the hotel was sold to LandCo Investments, LLC, for $8.5 million. However, by 2005, the Colorado-based investment group defaulted on its promissory note to the MGDF, thereby reverting ownership of the hotel back to the Maharishi.

On February 5, 2008 the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died leaving his investments and his spiritual movement in the hands of his multiple family members and business associates. The Maharishi Global Development Fund reported that at the time of his death, the Guru’s United States real estate assets alone were valued at more that $300 million.

According to the Harris County Appraisal District, effective October 4, 2011, the Heaven on Earth Inn changed hands once again, and has been renamed the Beanmont Medical Center Hotel, LLC. It is still vacant and in need of extensive renovation.

[Ivan Koop Kuper is a real estate broker and a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and maintains a healthy diet of music, media, and popular culture. He can be reached at kuperi@stthom.edu. Find more articles by Ivan Koop Kuper on The Rag Blog.]

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