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California Landslide Results in Deconstruction of Legendary Wayfarers Chapel

Photo by Dmitry Kotov from Unsplash

Recently, an emergency team began dismantling the legendary Wayfarers Chapel after a severe California landslide. The landslide was triggered by a historic atmospheric river storm that caused extreme rainwater infiltration, significantly destabilizing the ground under the chapel. Stakeholders chose to dismantle the chapel due to structural damage, like shattering glass panes and cracks in the structure. Dismantling the building will also preserve its irreplaceable redwood, steel, and stone, with hope that the unique architectural elements can be preserved and reconstructed at a later date.

The event has caused serious distress among the Palos Verdes glass chapel’s congregation and members of preservation groups, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Architectural Resources Group, both of whom supported the protection of the historic structure. This unfortunate dismantling has also caused broader environmental issues to be brought into question, with the relationship to extreme climate events at the center of the discussion. 

History and Use of Wayfarers Chapel

The Wayfarers Chapel opened in 1951, as a historic midcentury interpretation of what a church could be. The design, by Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., was based on the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that humans could connect with divinity through a relationship with nature. Frank was commissioned by Elizabeth Schellenberg and Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, Swedenborg devotees who wanted to memorialize the scientist and theologian. 

Vanderlip donated the land – 1.4 hectares on Rancho Palos Verdes, intending the structure to be maintained forever. For years the project was a huge success, attracting some 500,000 visitors a year. The site also led to multiple notable weddings taking place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, such as those of actress Jayne Mansfield and leading Beach Boy Brian Wilson. 

Sadly, those hoping for a fairytale Wayfarers Chapel wedding will have to wait until a new location is found for its reconstruction. To add some insult to injury, the structure was declared a National Historic Landmark only months before the deconstruction. 

Environmental Profile of Palos Verdes: How the Climate Impacted the Area

As we know, the deconstruction of Wayfarers Chapel was inspired by the impacts of severe landslides in the Palos Verdes area, but why were these processes so impactful to the structure? One reason is that the land beneath the chapel consists of shale and volcanic ash called bentonite, both malleable materials that destabilized rapidly. 

The peninsula has been known for having a complex, unstable geological profile for some time, prone to slow-motion landslides that commonly impact roads and building foundations. Recently, extreme weather, notably a historic river storm, increased the instability of the area’s land, with significant rainfall. The area’s Mediterranean climate was easier to predict in the past, with wetter winters and dryer summers, but climate change has made weather patterns more erratic and severe. 

Conservation Efforts & Community Response

Wayfarers Chapel means a lot to the Palos Verdes community and the broader conservationist sect of the US, meaning the deconstruction has been met with a palpable sense of sadness and disappointment. Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor John Cruikshank has stated that the city is working with leaders from the chapel to find a stable area to rebuild the preserved elements.

However, this might be easier said than done. Jim Lindberg from the National Trust for Historic Preservation told The Guardian “We’re finding there’s really no place that’s not vulnerable in one way or another.” This denotes just how hard it might be to find somewhere truly stable for the Chapel to call home, especially in the Palos Verdes area. 

However, despite the outlook appearing fairly bleak, local efforts haven’t been deterred, showing just how valuable the Chapel is to the community. Chapel leaders have declared that they’ve saved over $5 million from weddings and other events that have taken place at the building, while a recent GoFundMe generated around $75,000 from concerned community members. There’s still some way to go before they reach the estimated $20 million price tag of the rebuild. 

Looking Forward

There are no signs of the Palos Verdes community giving up on the Wayfarers Chapel, with a former Nike Missile site being eyed up as a potential choice for the building’s new home. However, the entire situation does make it clear just how much support conservation efforts require, especially in the unstable climate of the 2020s. It also shows that resilient infrastructure is essential in disaster-prone areas – even those without deadly consequences. 

Successful projects, such as the global funding of Notre Dame fire restoration and the movement of a historic lighthouse in Martha’s Vineyard, show that the right level of support can have great results for at-risk cultural heritage sites. Any way you slice it, the deconstruction of Wayfarers Chapel is a sign that climate change needs to slow down. Erratic weather is starting to impact communities in more ways than we could have ever imagined, with the increased risk of disasters being something that’s already causing problems on a global scale. 

If looking to learn more about the state and consequences of climate change, Disasters Expo USA in California should be marked on your calendar. On September 5th & 6th, the Los Angeles Convention Center will host hundreds of disaster response businesses, an impressive lineup of guest speakers, and thousands of attendees. Showcases and seminars will encompass various aspects of disaster management, including sustainability efforts, conservation techniques, and much more. 

Register for tickets here and get more insights into environmental happenings by reading our blog.