Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: SUNDAY, January 8, 1995 TAG: 9501090061 SECTION: VIRGINIA PAGE: C1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: DAN CASEY STAFF WRITER DATELINE: HOT SPRINGS LENGTH: Long
They say faith can move mountains. If the Rev. Pat Robertson is any example, perhaps it also can build mansions on top of them.
When he grows weary from feeding the hungry, saving souls, collecting millions for his Christian ministry and charting a conservative political course for the future, the nation's leading televangelist unwinds in a stately mountaintop villa high over U.S. 220 in Bath County.
Robertson moved into the remote $1.17 million house about a year ago, setting tongues a-wagging among the area's residents.
``I appreciate my privacy, and this is a sort of little place I come for my privacy. This is a rather remote, private place,'' Robertson said before politely cutting short a telephone interview.
Robertson declined to describe the house in detail or allow a reporter and photographer to visit the guarded 27-acre compound. The property is a couple of miles down Virginia 703 from Ingalls Field, the local airport.
According to records on file at the Bath County Courthouse, the three-story stucco mansion's floor area totals 11,136 square feet, or about one-quarter of an acre.
It features four fireplaces and two chimneys and is equipped with four full baths and two half-baths. The records don't list the number of bedrooms, and Robertson declined to say how many there are.
The chalet sports a kidney-shaped swimming pool, an octagonal pool house, an enclosed porch, an open porch, a deck, a flagstone patio and a carport, according to the courthouse records.
Its gas furnace is fed from a propane tank buried in the ground. And it appears that Robertson is building a tennis court.
The home is considerably larger than the 6,800-square-foot, five-bedroom, 71/2-bath brick house on Christian Broadcasting Network property in Virginia Beach that Robertson has called home since 1983.
Back then, the evangelist expressed reluctance to move into the CBN home from his $300-a-month rented house beside a sewage plant in Suffolk. And he wouldn't allow the builder to install a swimming pool or a tennis court, shunning those luxuries as unseemly.
He ended up paying for that house himself after debating whether the public would view it as a windfall from the ministry. He then donated it to CBN.
Robertson estimated that he visits the mountaintop house about 10 times a year. He said it also is used for executive retreats by the governing boards of CBN and Virginia Beach-based Regent University, which he founded and serves as chairman.
``It's like a beach house, like they have on the Outer Banks [of North Carolina]. I like to come up in the mountains where I'm from and rest every now and then,'' Robertson said. ``It's got pretty views, mountain views.''
``Breathtaking'' or ``awe-inspiring'' might be more fitting descriptions of the scenery.
At an elevation of 4,140 feet above sea level, on sunny days one can see clear into West Virginia, across the grassy swells and hills of Warm Springs Valley and above the cupped peaks of the George Washington National Forest.
\ Concerned about security
Robertson said he cherishes his and his family's privacy and vaguely alluded to ``security'' considerations in explaining why he doesn't want outsiders on the property. He backs up those concerns up with old-fashioned firepower.
When a reporter and photographer tried to get a picture of the well-screened house from a public road last month, they were warned away by caretaker Herbert Hicks.
Brandishing a pistol, Hicks climbed down an embankment out of thick woods to reach the airport road, Virginia 703.
Flashing a badge and identification card, he identified himself as a Chesapeake sheriff's deputy. Hicks accidentally dropped the handgun before tucking it in his jacket a few minutes later.
Hicks lives with his wife in a 1,900-square-foot house along the driveway that sweeps up to the mansion. He said Robertson has received 100 death threats in recent years.
``In January, a guy came close to getting him,'' Hicks said. He offered no other details.
The Chesapeake Sheriff's Office confirmed that Hicks is one of 70 to 80 unpaid ``special deputies'' in the sheriff's auxiliary force. That status allows him to lawfully carry a concealed firearm, Maj. David Newby said.
In terms of the number of jet-setters it draws, Bath County isn't exactly Virginia's version of Aspen. The world-famous Homestead resort still attracts its share of Eastern bluebloods, high-powered business people, assorted politicians and celebrities to ritzy Hot Springs. But Bath's roughly 5,000 residents are decidedly middle-class.
Seventeen of the county's 2,000 households have incomes exceeding $150,000 annually, according to the 1990 Census. The median household income is $24,000, while the typical home in Bath in 1990 was worth $45,700.
Robertson paid more than 30 times that for his home on the mountain, including the cost of the land. He bought the 27.7 acres for $211,000 on July 4, 1992, from Virginia Hot Springs Inc., former owners of The Homestead. There is no record of any mortgage for the property on file at the courthouse.The crime rate is low. The county recorded only 56 felonies - and only one violent crime, a robbery - during all of 1993. The Bath County Jail has a mere eight cells, and it's rare when Sheriff James W. Bryan Jr. has them all filled.
Robertson, who was born in nearby Lexington, has visited the area off and on at least since the late 1970s, when CBN purchased a downtown Hot Springs home. The network sold that property in 1989 for $315,000, according to land records.
The televangelist has kept his presence in the valley low-key. When he visits, he often flies into Ingalls Field on a chartered jet. He said his favorite pastime is hiking along six miles of trails that wind along Warm Springs Mountain leading from his property.
Every so often, Robertson descends the winding road for meals at area eateries such as the Water Wheel Restaurant in Warm Springs. The day after Christmas, he dined at Squire's Table, a rustic, log-cabin-style tavern on U.S. 220 south of Hot Springs. It's almost directly below his house on the mountain.
Robertson also has been involved in area cultural and charitable activities. Last July, he showed up at an art show run by a Bath County foundation that raises scholarship money for promising college students. He bought four or five of the 200-plus artworks on display, which were priced from $25 to $800, Kathy Singleton said.
Through CBN's Operation Blessing campaign - which is funded by his TV ministry's viewers - Robertson donated $5,000 to the Back-to-School Project. The fund buys clothing and shoes for underprivileged children among Bath's 800 primary and secondary school students.
The contributions represented half of all funds raised by the Back-to-School Project in 1993 and 1994, said Laura Shaver, who helped organize the fund-raiser with her husband, Steve, the pastor of Faith Covenant Family Church.
It meant $50 clothing vouchers for 96 schoolchildren in each of those years, said Opal Gazzola, county social services director. Overall, Operation Blessing has contributed more than $80million to needy people around the world since 1978.
``I think he's very respected and, golly, very friendly with everybody. He doesn't come around flaunting anything,'' said Gazzola's husband, John M. Gazzola Jr., who is The Homestead's official historian and a member of the county Board of Supervisors.
``I don't think he's gotten involved in the area. I think it's just a relaxation home. He hasn't gotten involved in politics or any business up here. Hopefully, he will in the future,'' said Richard B. Byrd Jr., Bath's emergency services director.
\ Bright lights on the mountain
According to a joke told in one bed-and-breakfast in Warm Springs, the villa's brilliant lights have prompted nighttime calls to the fire department from residents who feared Warms Springs Mountain was on fire.
The joke is rooted in fact, said one local firefighter, who asked not to be named. One night during the building's construction when the mountain was shrouded in fog, citizens saw a red glow near its peak and called in reports of a fire. The ``blaze'' turned out to be lights left on by construction workers, the firefighter said.
The calls ended after word about the house passed through the valley, he said.
Most of the remaining talk about the house centers on its size.
``The tales from the workmen who've worked up there - or the people who've just gone up and looked around when it was being built - are incredible. The stories I've heard are decadent,'' said Creigh Deeds, a Hot Springs lawyer and Democratic member of the General Assembly. He said he hasn't been invited up and doubts he ever will be.
``I hear the swimming pool is heated,'' offered Covington resident Marshall Puckett.
``It's big enough for four families to live in,'' said Kay Taylor, a clerk in the Bath County Sheriff's Office. ``I've heard he's going to build another house for [some relatives] to live in.''
The deed allows Robertson to build an additional house on the property.
The property also has generated some questions over how a minister could amass enough wealth to build such a lavish weekend home.
``I'm amazed - if it comes out of his ministry - that he has such a tremendous income'' and could afford it, said Dennis Nicely, who owns Nicely Exxon in Covington.
``I've been tithing for 40 years,'' Nicely said. ``I can't in my mind justify that amount of money for a retirement home ... There's such a need in the world, so many financial needs, so many individuals.''
According to published reports, Robertson presides over a complex financial empire that includes tax-exempt religious organizations and profit-making companies. He has made millions from the latter, such as cable TV's Family Channel. The channel is an outgrowth of his ministry that was spun off into a private corporation in 1990 so CBN wouldn't run afoul of federal tax laws.
Robertson and his son Timothy took the channel's parent company public in 1992, turning their $150,000 investment into shares worth an estimated $90million. Nonprofit CBN, the other major partner in the corporation, made even more on the deal - an estimated $600 million.
Hicks, the property's caretaker, defended Robertson.
``This house has nothing to do with CBN or with Operation Blessing,'' Hicks said. ``Pat is [chief executive officer] of five organizations. Three are profit-making corporations. Two are nonprofit.
``From the two nonprofits, he takes no income at all. In fact, 65 percent of his salary from the profit-making companies is donated to the nonprofits. This house was built from his salary from'' the profit-making companies.
One old acquaintance of Robertson's in the evangelism movement thinks the mountain retreat sets a poor example.
Ole Anthony worked alongside Robertson for three months in 1972 after the televangelist bought a TV station in Dallas. Anthony went on to found the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a ministry for the homeless.
All of Trinity's workers make $50 a week, including Anthony, the president.
In recent years, the Trinity Foundation has operated a hot line for people who believe they've been victimized by televangelists. Trinity also has investigated TV preachers for national television shows such as ABC's ``20/20.'' Anthony, who also is a licensed private investigator, bills himself as the nation's ``leading critic'' of TV evangelists.
He calls Robertson ``the cleanest of the clean'' in the Christian TV world. Trinity has received virtually no complaints about CBN. Compared with many other televangelists, ``there's been a certain amount of consistent integrity'' with Robertson, he said.
But ``I think he's been seduced, frankly. This million-dollar house - this was not the Pat I knew back'' in 1972, Anthony said. ``At that time, he was devoted to the ministry. He didn't care about material possessions.''
``From the standpoint of what I believe to be the Christian call of our lives - that our leaders should be the poorest of the poor, rather than the richest of the rich - I think [the house] is a travesty,'' Anthony said.