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Mansions of glory

By August 10, 2012 2 Comments

The shot is not sharp, but you get the picture.  That’s the ocean out there in the background, and the foreground is Laguna Beach.  The house belongs to Robert A. Schuller, son of Robert H. Schuller, the televangelist of Crystal Cathedral fame, who was born on a ramshackle farm just up the river from where I’m sitting.  

To say the least, his son’s place looks absolutely nothing like the place where his famous father was born.  You could fit the whole house here in the Great Room.


I was at the home place yesterday, exploring. Today, a young family owns it and will soon be tearing it down, not a particularly difficult task. They love the acreage, and it is nice–I could live there myself, just a stone’s throw from the Floyd River.  They’ve got plans to build a new place on the site, so when the Schuller place comes down, it’ll be gone forever, sadly enough, because there is a story there, which is to say, here. 

We’ve had almost a decade’s worth of real prosperity in corn country, the square-cut gravel roads all over Sioux County brimming these days with new houses. Not long ago, 100 acres of Sioux County ground went for $20,000 @ acre, if you can believe it. So, honestly, I think you’d have to look far and wide to find a house as woebegone as the Schuller home place, and I mean no disrespect.  Some might call it a hovel.  The young family who live there aren’t particularly passionate about the house or what’s left of the buildings–it’s the acreage they love, and I don’t blame them.  



I doubt the state of Iowa has ever birthed a writer who has sold as many books as Robert H. Schuller, the televangelist who grew up just three miles or so from where I live, a poor, farm kid who became an adviser to Presidents, a friend to Hollywood, spiritual mentor to CEOs who make more money in a day than his parents ever dreamed of in their lifetime down there on the Floyd.  His Hour of Power was beamed around the world, tallied millions of viewers and sought and received mega-millions of dollars in donations to the cause.

Few will ever think of Rev. Dr. Schuller as a writer, however; his place is not a landmark, and the State of Iowa isn’t interested, that I know of, in registering it as a historical place.  As I said, they’ll have to act quickly—it’ll soon be gone.  Schuller will be remembered, instead, as a “televangelist,” which, to some, at least, is kissin’ cousin to a snake oil salesman. 

But he’s helped millions, some will say, an assessment which can’t be denied.

Today, the mighty Crystal Cathedral is the property of the Roman Catholic church.  Schuller dedicated it to God when it was completed, so you might say it’s stayed within the family.  But then some would also say, I’m sure, that if anything, it was a monument to American excess, a goofy, gilded, multi-million dollar con.

Today, Robert H. Schuller is retired, and, if the scuttlebutt is accurate he’s probably pretty much oblivious to what has happened to his ministry.  He lives about 1700 miles from Alton, IA, his birthplace, light years away.  But the house tells a story.  He’s an Abe Lincoln, a Ben Franklin, a Bill Clinton, a Barack Obama; like them, he came from so very, very little, and became monumentally successful.


This is where he was born, where he was raised, where he left to go to school  just up the road in tiny Newkirk.  Robert H. Schuller is “rags-to-riches,” the American success story.  His biography, starting here, explains why this country is flooded with illegal immigrants.  He remains the American dream, even though his ministry is no longer his, the Cathedral is now Catholic, and his family seemed, at least for a time, to have gone the way of King Lear’s. Still, even in his dotage, Schuller’s story is the real American gospel.

These days his son is posting his own Laguna Beach mansion as a rental place where well-heeled seekers can pursue fulfillment.  “Enjoy a private spiritual retreat with Rev. Dr. Robert A. Schuller and his wife, Donna.  Enjoy a 2-7 day retreat in their beautiful four bedroom, four bath, 180-degree ocean view home located in a very unique, private gate-guarded beach community in Laguna Beach.” 

$700 @ night, $5000 @ week, if you’re a searcher.

Yesterday, on the Sabbath, I went out to the Schuller home place, the place where Robert H. grew up, a place that carries absolutely no hint of the Crystal Cathedral or his son’s Laguna Beach mansion/retreat center.  The family who lives there was on vacation.  Their dog tried to be fierce; but aside from him no one was out there at this historic place at the end of the gravel, the Schullers being long gone.  There’s no ocean view, no four baths.

If you’d like to own the place, the young couple who does will probably be happy to let you have it, gratis, as long as you haul it away.  Act soon, however, because, like everything else, it’s going to come down. Maybe they’ll keep the pump, where once upon a time the Schuller’s drew their water.

Trust me, just standing there yesterday at the farm house where the Robert Schuller was born was, I swear, as remarkable a sermon as anything any of them–father, son, even grandson, who’s also a preacher–will ever write or preach or broadcast.  You find the appropriate scripture, as will I.

It’s just down the road. . .so far away.   

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jim Geertsma says:

    Jim, Fellow Dordt College graduate here. Last time I saw you was in Holland, MI., where you read from your own works in a coffee shot to other fellow graduates from Dordt. It seems ironic that you see such contrasts in the images…a humble farm home versus a mansion on the Pacific. For most this is quite an upgrade, if you will, and represents the American dream. But for me, it represents what so often occurs when a follower of Christ reaches the national stage: a loss of focus on true ministry (and I think Robert, Sr. had that) and a transition to a focus on oneself (Robert Sr. had that too), so it is really a downgrade, in my humble opinion. It is sad really, but not surprising when you look at those in the limelight. Personally, I prefer the farm to the ocean view. I loved this article. The pictures gave me goosebumps.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Another great posting. I love your love of the landscape and what it holds and what it remembers. I hope they save the beautiful trees. (White oaks? Hard maples?) And I hope they save that Dutchman's gable-end barn. What a landscape opens up behind your photos. Good God Almighty.

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