A Historical Glass-Enclosed Chapel Overlooking the Pacific Ocean Must Be Dismantled Before Nature Can Destroy It

The one-of-a-kind sculpture in California, designed by the son of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is at the mercy of shifting grounds

Glass-enclosed chapel with trees around it
The popular chapel has been closed since February because of damage caused by land movement. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

In the late 1940s, Lloyd Wright—son of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright—drew up plans for a striking chapel made of glass, wood and stone. Crews finished building the chapel in 1951 beneath a canopy of redwood trees on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Rancho Palos Verdes, a coastal city south of Los Angeles.

For the last 73 years, the glass-enclosed chapel has attracted architecture aficionados, wedding parties, photographers and worshippers affiliated with the Swedenborgian Church of North America. But the ground beneath the beloved structure is shifting because of a recently activated landslide, which is twisting and cracking the chapel’s delicate components. Without intervention, the chapel is at risk of “irrevocable damage,” according to its website.

To save the structure, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in December, authorities have decided to carefully take it apart piece by piece. They’re searching for a new, more stable location and, once they find one, they plan to reconstruct the chapel.

Chapel leaders hope to rebuild somewhere else on the same property. But, if that’s not possible, they’re open to a similar site in Rancho Palos Verdes.

“We have no intention of leaving the area,” says Dan Burchett, executive director of Wayfarers Chapel, to LAist’s Yusra Farzan

Dismantling the chapel is expected to cost between $300,000 to $500,000, with rebuilding estimated at roughly $20 million. The church will use $5 million in savings from past weddings for rebuilding, but then plans to launch a community fundraising campaign to cover the rest. A GoFundMe initiative has raised nearly $75,000 so far.

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The chapel is situated atop the Portuguese Bend, an unstable area with lots of ground movement because of its geology. Authorities say construction work in the 1950s triggered a dormant landslide that’s been slowly shifting the landscape ever since.

The shifting has accelerated in recent years, however, because of back-to-back winters with heavy rainfall. From October 2021 to October 2022, the land was moving at a rate of roughly 3 inches per year, according to city data shared by the chapel. But from March 2024 to April 2024, it began shifting at a rate of 7 inches per week—which translates to roughly 30 feet per year.

“What’s happening is unprecedented,” says Mike Phipps, a geologist hired by the city to keep tabs on the ground movement, to the Los Angeles Times’ Grace Toohey in February.

The landslide is affecting hundreds of homes and structures in Rancho Palos Verdes. It’s causing structural damage, creating cracks in walls and ceilings, tearing up roads and breaking utility lines.

At the Wayfarers Chapel, the landslide has torqued and bent the metal framing in the walls and ceiling; it’s fractured the glass panels, cracked the concrete floor and damaged the redwood structure. The cornerstone, laid in 1949, also has a long crack in it. The electricity, water, sewer and gas utility lines are unusable, and all other buildings on the property are a “complete loss,” according to the chapel website. The visitor’s center, built in 2000 up to modern earthquake standards, was recently red-tagged by the city, meaning it’s not safe for occupancy.

The chapel and surrounding campus has been closed since February because of the damage.

“So many of the chapel’s original materials that were part of the Lloyd Wright design cannot be replicated today: the old growth redwood glulam, the blue roof tiles, the elegant network of steel that holds the windows together,” says Katie Horak, principal of Architectural Resources Group, which is leading the restoration efforts, in a statement. “With each passing day, more of this material is lost or irreparably damaged. Our team is working against the clock to document and move these building components to safety so that they can be put back together again.”

The city, meanwhile, has allocated more than $14 million to try to address the landslide, including the installation of underground pumps to remove water that may be contributing to the land movement, reports the New York Times’ Douglas Morino. Still, the city’s leaders and residents are “feeling anxious and nervous,” as Ara Mihranian, Rancho Palos Verdes city manager, tells the New York Times.

“It’s very important to be aggressive and do what we can immediately,” he adds. “For years we’ve been saying something imminent is going to happen.”

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