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A Fragile Beauty on the Shifting Rock of Ages

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wayfarers Chapel is scarcely more than a soap bubble, a delicate prism of sunlight and shadows set on the airy bluff tops of Rancho Palos Verdes.

“In photos you see the panes of glass--very ethereal, very surreal,” says wedding photographer John Borden, who has studied the light and lines of the historic glass sanctuary perhaps more carefully than anyone. “You have the whole illusion of being in the church, but the church is not really there.”

This spiritual window onto nature is the crowning achievement of Lloyd Wright, son of America’s greatest architect. The vaulted sanctuary--only 28 feet high and 27 feet wide--is surrounded by young redwoods and green gardens and filled with symbols of growth, God’s light, and the unity between man’s inner self and the physical world.

There is unintended symbolism, too: Even while its fragile beauty aspires toward heaven, the chapel resists the constant threat of forces below: deep, intractable geologic forces that have wrought havoc along these rolling bluffs.

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Layers of bentonite, a type of porous clay created by ancient volcanic ash, began moving beneath the rugged Palos Verdes Peninsula only a few seasons after the chapel was completed in 1951. The slippage produced a creeping landslide that destroyed nearly 100 homes during the 1950s at Portuguese Bend, a massive slide area that remains active just a third of a mile east of Wayfarers Chapel.

A later slide at Abalone Cove, on land immediately surrounding the chapel, rendered the chapel’s visitor center unusable in the early 1980s and the structure was torn down in 1995. The church itself was undamaged. In fact, geological surveys show it has not even budged.

“Someone is watching over that chapel,” says Eric Lloyd Wright, son of the architect.

“Divine providence,” suggests the Rev. Harvey Tafel, the chapel’s longtime minister. He says that in the late 1940s, when the site was being chosen, “geodetic surveys and geology as a science for landslides of this type [were] nonexistent. It was just beginning.”

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The Swedenborgian Church, the smallest Christian denomination in the National Council of Churches, selected the picturesque coast to construct its $25,000 showcase as a memorial to Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic whose extensive writings--30 volumes of religious work--probed the nature of reality and espoused tolerance and holistic living.

Wayfarers was dedicated to travelers in need of spiritual nourishment. It has no permanent congregation.

Much of Tafel’s job is to safeguard the structure. He says there is no immediate cause for fear, in large part because of city wells that pump out 200,000 gallons of ground water per day. They have stabilized the slide zone around the church by drying up the subterranean strata.

It also helps that the chapel was built on a rocky promontory--harder ground than the old visitor center, which was constructed on relatively loose sediment. Knowing all that is nice, as Tafel points out, but it is no guarantee.

“There’s no such thing as bedrock in Palos Verdes,” he says. “The term they use is ‘undisturbed natural terrain.’ ”

Which means only that it hasn’t moved yet--a fact that prompts Tafel to laugh out loud.

Though there will always be uncertainty, there is also cause to rejoice. This month the chapel celebrated its 50th anniversary, an occasion marked by the dedication of a new visitor center. Eric Wright, who years ago designed the distinctive flower-like walkway lamps for his father’s masterpiece, served as an architectural consultant for the new glass-fronted center, anchored by 18 concrete caissons buried 40 feet into the hillside.

“We could have all the earth wash out beneath it and it’ll still be standing there,” Tafel says, showing off the new building. “Not that that’s going to happen. But this sucker is solid.”

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Meanwhile, Tafel is overseeing a new planting program. Ice plant once colored the hillsides above the church; that has been stripped off and is being replaced by native species such as lantana and cape honeysuckle. They are lighter and require less water, further reducing the slide risk.

During the 1980s, when Abalone Cove was moving, geological surveys were taken every month at Wayfarers Chapel. Now the land is secure enough that no one has measured for years, Tafel says. The most vivid reminders of the dangers are found beyond the ridge at Portuguese Bend, where land continues to slip and tumble seaward at up to seven feet per year.

Surviving homes there have been moved as far as two football fields. Most are built on “floating foundations” rigged with jacks and timbers to keep them level. Palos Verdes Drive South, the two-lane road that runs just below the chapel and through the 0.8-mile slide zone, has to be repaved five or six times a year because of the slide. It is lined with sewer and water pipes that cannot be buried.

Visitors usually see no evidence of those problems. About 800 weddings a year are performed in the glass sanctuary. At least 300 of those couples hail from Japan, Tafel says. Often, they book trips that allow them to stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills and see other Los Angeles landmarks. They cross the urban sprawl by limousine to exchange vows at Wayfarers.

No perpendicular lines mar the chapel’s natural aesthetic. Lloyd Wright, who shortened his name from Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. to help mold his own identity, used angles that suggest tree branches, honeycombs and snowflakes.

“He’s captured, in geometric form, the feeling of standing in the presence of God,” Tafel says.

A round portal above the altar perfectly frames an elegant toyon tree. The steps and lighted tower, called “God’s Candle,” are constructed of white Palos Verdes stone. Sword ferns and ivy accent the redwoods.

Services are held at 10 a.m. Sundays and an offering is taken, but the bulk of church revenues come from weddings. The rates are $1,425 for weekend ceremonies, $1,125 for weekdays.

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Borden, the photographer, figures he has seen more than 500 couples united inside the glass walls. Having visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France and other elaborate, centuries-old churches across Europe, he describes Wayfarers as “special beyond any other place.” Borden has even invited a handful of European photographers and dozens from across America to come and see the place he shoots.

“They’re all just blown away.”


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