Spreading the word of God has been extremely lucrative for Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world’s largest Christian broadcasting company. The organization’s late founders, evangelical power couple Paul and Jan Crouch, were renowned for extravagant lifestyles notably lacking in Christian asceticism or self-denial – his-and-hers mega-mansions in Newport Beach, chauffeured Bentleys, and $57 million in private jets. Jan maintained an air-conditioned trailer just for her snow-white Maltese dogs.
Accusations of financial impropriety and questions about the personal lives of its leadership have tracked TBN throughout its 44-year history. Now the network is again under an unflattering looking-glass – this time thanks to a messy civil suit, filed in 2012 and finally concluded last week, brought by a granddaughter of the Crouches who said TBN failed to take appropriate action after she reported sexual assault at the hands of a TBN employee.
She was ultimately awarded $2 million – pennies, relative to TBN’s wealth. The lawsuit’s real cost has been the reputational damage suffered by an already stained organization. “TBN has been a huge embarrassment to evangelical Christianity for decades,” the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told the New York Times in 2012.
TBN, headquartered in Orange County, California, owns properties around the country, including a biblical theme park in Florida. Given its reputation for garish, over-the-top real estate, however, it may be surprising to learn that the notoriously flashy televangelist network broadcasts much of its programming from an understated and historic building tucked onto a quiet side street near Union Square.
TBN acquired the Century Building, an elegant four-floor townhouse at 111 E. 15th St., in 2007, as a new branch of its multi-state network of broadcasting facilities. Today the building houses a soundstage and theater from which TBN broadcasts some of its weekly programs. (There are occasional taping audience calls on Facebook, though these days TBN’s Facebook page seems to mainly roll out a steady mixture of inspirational quotes and pro-Israel messaging.) TBN also leases space to Every Nation Church, an unrelated evangelical church that holds Sunday services there.
Modest signs on the Century Building identify it as belonging to TBN, but the building’s exterior is otherwise inconspicuous. The inside is rather more ornate – but still aesthetically modest, at least by TBN standards. A grand staircase in red carpeting leads up to a sizeable lobby with marble columns and Edwardian furniture.
There are some angel statuettes and the walls are covered with mirrors.
Services are held, and programming filmed, in the building’s rather gaudy theater. Intricate crown molding covers the theater’s walls and crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings. The stage is draped with red curtains and flanked by Greco-Roman columns. The backdrop of the stage is painted with a glowing New York skyline.
The theater, in slightly different form, was already there; before its acquisition by TBN, the Century Building was an off-Broadway venue. In fact the building’s eccentric ownership history could be said to reflect the changing character of Union Square and Gramercy Park.
The 15th St. building was first constructed as a modest residential home in the mid-1800s. In 1857 it was purchased by the Century Association, a private club that had been looking for a new clubhouse.
Formed in 1847 as a social society for “Artists, Literary Men, Scientists, Physicians, Officers of the Army and Navy, members of the Bench and Bar, Engineers, Clergymen, Representatives of the Press, Merchants and men of leisure,” the genteel Century Association began renovating and expanding the building to accommodate its growing membership. The Century Building shuffled through several architectural styles before settling into its more or less final form as a red-brick “neo-Grec,” with four stories including a walk-down level.
Powerful moment @tbnsalsa, where all nations gather to lift the throne of the Lord in worship!!! We sing Haleluyah to the only one who deserves all the glory and honor, his name is Jesus! Poderoso momento en #TBN donde todas las naciones levantan el trono de Dios en adoración. Cantamos aleluya al único que es digno de toda gloria y honra, Jesus!!! @willienatal @p_ramirez- thank you so much for the opportunity. @rafaelnunicuevasjr @marlonrodriguez76 #TBN#tbnsalsa #tbnsalsapraise #worship #adoracion #allnationsworship #worldwide #gloriosolatido #aleluya #thechoseninternational #thechosenarts #tcarts #tci #teamtci #teamsucess
After 30 years the Century Association departed for a new clubhouse on West 43rd, in the area now known as “club row.” Today the Century Association is still one of New York’s most prestigious private clubs; formerly men-only, it agreed to admit women in 1989 after a court order ended sex-segregated clubs in New York. More recently the club went through a messy internal fight over whether to sever ties with the Garrick, an affiliated club in London which still does not admit women as members.
The former Century Association building was purchased by the Lager Beer Brewers Board of Trade in 1890, expanded further, and then passed through a series of owners and tenants including the Manhattan chapter of the Sons of Italy Hall; the Galicia Sporting Club; a textiles union; an Asian-American import-export business; and a travel agency. The building, believed to be New York’s oldest extant building originally created as a clubhouse, was recognized as a landmark in 1993.
In the mid-’90s the building was purchased as an artistic venue and redubbed the Century Center for the Performing Arts. The inside was completely renovated and a 299-seat theater added. The venue had an enthusiastic but brief career, but hit hard times in the 2000s when the off-Broadway market contracted.
Unlike off-Broadway theater, the televangelism industry was doing quite well for itself in 2007, when TBN bought the building. As of today TBN claims to be carried by more than 18,000 television affiliates worldwide. It’s also one of the wealthiest religious organizations in America, with a net worth of $800 million in 2010, according to the Guardian – tax-deductible, since TBN is registered as a not-for-profit corporation.
In fact TBN is notorious for its rather generous interpretation of tax law. In a 2012 lawsuit, a former TBN bookkeeper (also a granddaughter of the Crouches) claimed she was fired for refusing to ignore the misappropriation of tens of millions of dollars. She also alleged that TBN likes to declare its employees “ministers,” so it does not have to pay taxes on their salaries, and gives members of the Crouch family rent-free houses which it claims are “parsonages.”
(Requests for comment to Trinity Broadcasting Network were directed to attorney Colby May, who could not be reached for comment in time for publication.)
Much of TBN’s wealth comes from phone-in donations from viewers. Paul and Jan Crouch were proud of that fact and touted it as evidence of the way their message resonated with audiences. Critics, on the other hand, call TBN’s business model profoundly cynical and exploitative.
The network is an aggressive extoller of the “prosperity gospel,” a controversial school of evangelical Protestant theology which promises faithful Christians will be rewarded with material wealth. As detractors see it, TBN’s celebrity televangelists are Elmer Gantry-like figures who milk money from poor and working-class Americans by persuading them that donations to TBN will be repaid many times over by God.
TBN’s exploitative financial model has been the main target of its critics’ ire. But the network has had its share of other scandals. In 2004 media reported that Paul Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep quiet about a gay tryst they had had in the ’90s. (Crouch denied the claims.) In 2013 a minister who had promoted a miraculous “cancer cure” medicine on TBN was sentenced to 14 years in prison. She had convinced her “patients” to drop their oncology treatments and instead pay her thousands of dollars for a “brown sludge” that turned out to be a mixture of suntan oil and beef flavoring. Six of the patients died.
After decades of explosive growth, the tide may finally be turning for TBN. There has also been a move among evangelical ministries to distance themselves from the extravagant and scandal-ridden network, and the organization has been on rockier financial footing in recent years. Revenue dropped from $207 million in 2006 to $121.5 million in 2014, according to tax documents cited by the Orange County Register. Earlier this year TBN announced the sale of its massive “campus” in Costa Mesa, California.
We are aware of no plans by TBN to sell the Century Building; for the time being the real estate holding appears to retain God’s favor.