Wayfarers Chapel – Rancho Palos Verdes, California - Atlas Obscura
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Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Wayfarers Chapel

Swedenborgian glass church surrounded by redwoods and perched atop a massive landslide area. 

Wayfarers Chapel, also known as “The Glass Church,” was designed by Lloyd Wright – architect and son of Frank Lloyd Wright – and built between 1949 and 1951. It is part of the Swedenborgian Church of North America, the smallest Christian denomination in the National Council of Churches, and serves as a memorial to Emanuel Swedenborg, 18th century Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian.

Originally constructed as a public place where travelers could stop to rest, pray or exchange ideas, today the Wayfarers Chapel holds religious services and is the site of roughly 800 weddings annually – an average of 2.2 weddings a day, for every day of the year – 300 of which are for couples hailing from Japan.

The chapel, only 28 feet high and 27 feet wide, is located in Rancho Palos Verdes, California and surrounded by large redwood trees. It is said that Wright, whose architectural style often incorporates the natural landscape, was inspired by the “cathedral-like majesty” of Northern California’s redwoods and thus chose the trees as a main element in the chapel’s landscaping.

Wright was also inspired by Emanuel Swedenborg the scientist and later Christian mystic around which the church is based. In his “Earths in the Universe,” Swedenborg wrote about visiting another planet whose inhabitants dwelled in living trees. One of the first known writings about the concept of arbortecture, or creating buildings from living trees, Swedenborg imagined these aliens shaping the trees from a very young stage and slowly guiding their growth into temples. Wright attempted to bring this vision to reality as much as was possible.

Planted over 50 years ago, the redwoods have just now begun to reach their maturity, thus becoming the living roof and walls of the enclosed glass space. What once was a transparent structure made entirely of triangular glass panes has now become apart of a thick grove of Coastal Redwoods, emphasizing Wright’s intent to “give the congregation a sense of inner as well as outer space.” In its later years the building has been referred to as the “tree chapel.”

The view from the building overlooks a peninsula along the Pacific Ocean known as Portugese Bend, an area that was once an island but is now characterized by its slow-moving landslides. Though the surrounding area of the chapel is geologically unstable, records have indicated that the church itself has not moved since its construction. The nearby visitors center, however, was torn down in 1995 after the Abalone Cove landslide of the 1980s, leading some chapel patrons to believe that a higher power has been protecting the glass church structure. Geologists, however, have suggested that the chapel owes it salvation to having been built on harder ground than the loose sediment under the visitors center.

Despite the precarious soil, the new visitors center was co-designed by Eric Lloyd Wright (design consultant and grandson of Frank son of Lloyd Wright) and completed in 2001. The center echoes the original architectural traditions of the chapel, featuring glass panes in 30 and 60 degree angles and local Palo Verdes materials. Inside, visitors can browse through Swedenborgian literature, learn about the chapel’s history and purchase items from the gift shop.

Contributed by
anhie
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