As Land Underneath Keeps Shifting, Historic Wayfarers Chapel Will Be Disassembled

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The historic Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes will be disassembled this week because of unprecedented land movement that has reached about 7 inches a week.

The project, which was announced Monday, comes as the land movement accelerates. City officials say the land where the chapel is located has been moving around 7 inches a week for the past few months. From October 2021 to October 2022, the land moved at a rate of around 0.08 inches a week.

“With the land moving at its current pace, the only way to preserve this building is to move it to a temporary safe location until a suitable build site is identified,” said Katie Horak with Architectural Resources Group, one of the organizations tasked with overseeing the disassembly of the 73-year-old structure. “The chapel cannot be moved in one piece due to the nature of its structure, and therefore it must be disassembled.”

How the disassembly will work

The “most delicate components” of the chapel — the redwood beams, steel mullions and blue roof tiles — will be removed first. Workers will use a 3D model of the building to label each part as it is removed so it can be put back together exactly where it belongs once it’s reconstructed.

Megan Turner, with S. L. Leonard & Associates, said the roof tiles will be removed with machinery, but the steel mullions and the salvageable glass panes will be removed by hand.

Special techniques will be used to deconstruct and remove the beams by crane. They will be placed in “wooden cradles” or custom fit boxes to be transported to another location in Rancho Palos Verdes.

The location of where the components of the chapel will be stored is important. Turner said that because of exposure to “the moisture and the afternoon sun and the morning dew,” mimicking those conditions in storage “is important to ensuring that the wood pieces maintain their integrity.”

Cracks on the glass facade of the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes and on walkways.

While the priority is disassembly and storage of the building, Dan Burchett, executive director of Wayfarers Chapel, said church officials are committed to rebuilding on its existing grounds.

“If it can’t be rebuilt on this site, and that is our first choice, we have never wanted to move off of this site,” he said. “But if this square mile landslide renders that an impossibility, we are open to looking for a similar site in Rancho Palos Verdes. We have no intention of leaving the area.”

How we got here

Rancho Palos Verdes Mayor John Cruikshank said Monday that land is moving at a rate of 6 to 9 inches per week in the Abalone Cove landslide, 5 to 9 inches in the Portuguese Bend landslide, and 1 to 4 inches in the Klondike Canyon landslide complex.

“The middle of the complex is moving the fastest with over 9 inches per week, and if you do that math, it’s about 39 feet per year,” he said.

The land movement resulted in the chapel’s administration building being red-tagged in April.

Tall trees and blue skies are visible in the background while in the foreground asphalt is damaged. An area is cordoned off with rope and beams.

The damaged grounds of the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Turner said when she was brought in a year ago to do restoration work on the chapel, there were some “hairline cracks” along the building. But the heavy rains of 2023 and earlier this year resulted in an increase in movement. In September, the first glass panel cracked.

“Gaps that we had last December that were maybe up to a half inch to an inch at that point have now increased to 3 to 5 inches in certain areas back behind the chapel,” she said.

LAist last visited the chapel in February. Since then, more glass appeared to be cracked and in some places missing. Cracks on the sidewalk were more pronounced and one side of the parking lot could no longer be used due to the land having shifted around 2 feet.

A storied history

 A postcard image of a church with a large glass facade, high transparent walls, and redwood beams that hold geometric panes of glass in place is situated in a grove surrounded by a low stone wall.

An early postcard image of the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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Courtesy Los Angeles Conservancy

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As we reported when the issues first became dire earlier this year:

Wayfarers Chapel was built in 1951 at the behest of the Swedenborgian Church. Members commissioned Lloyd Wright — son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright — to fulfill their vision of a small church overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

L.A. County is home to 23 National Historic Landmarks, according to the National Park Service. Dubbed “most Instagrammable chapel in L.A” by the Los Angeles Times, Wayfarers Chapel became the newest addition to that list in December 2023.

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Updated May 13, 2024 at 3:49 PM PDT

This story updated with additional information about the chapel’s history.





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