SoCal’s iconic glass chapel, a historical landmark, faces shaky future


Rev David Brown stands inside the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, Southern California. He has launched an appeal on GoFundMe to try to raise money that can be used to stabilise the chapel, which sits on an accelerating landslide complex. Photo: TNS

In the last year, the Instagram-famous Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, Southern California, has held an estimated 400 weddings in the glass-walled structure overlooking the ocean, costing each couple US$5,400 (RM25,295) – and more if they scheduled their nuptials on a weekend or opted for the floral or candle add-ons.

But despite its steep fees, the popular wedding venue is facing a growing financial crisis. The accelerating landslide complex on which it sits is cracking, crushing and threatening the entire property, forcing its indefinite closure, while much-needed restoration work has fallen by the wayside.

“As of right now, we have zero income coming in and we don’t for the foreseeable future,” said the Rev David Brown, the chapel’s minister. “What we are trying to assemble is some path forward to reopen the grounds.... We’re in a very challenging situation.”

The reverend in February launched an appeal for donations on GoFundMe to try to raise money that can be used to stabilise the area and, ideally, help with the long-term needs of the ageing chapel. It had raised almost US$50,000 (RM234,216) as of last Thursday, but Brown said the latest estimates for restoration could cost US$10mil (RM46.8mil) to US$20mil (RM93.6mil) – and that’s only once the landslide is stabilised.

“We don’t know how long the landslide and the movement is going to continue,” Brown said. Though city officials did not yet deem the chapel and its grounds unsafe to enter, the escalating damage led the chapel to voluntarily close last month.

In the last two weeks, the chapel’s nonprofit operators have issued dozens of refunds to couples who had weddings booked, totalling about US$1.5mil (RM7mil), Brown said.

But the landslide only exacerbated issues facing the chapel. The salty air around the church, built in 1951, has proved corrosive, and decades of wear and tear have taken a toll. In December, Brown estimated the necessary restoration would cost US$8mil (RM37.4mil), far beyond the nonprofit’s means, even with hundreds of weddings a year.

He said a price increase after the Covid-19 pandemic began to help the venue – “for a hot second” – accumulate money for the needed capital improvement project.

But now, all that momentum has reversed.

“One day to the next, you see how fast the land is moving,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, it took us closing down and the damage to an iconic national historic landmark to get the awareness raised.”

He said that in just the last few days, a cornerstone of the chapel cracked. Glass panes have shattered and sidewalks have buckled. They recently repaired the driveway, only for it to again need repaving weeks later.

The visitor centre, which was built in the early 2000s on what was deemed more stable ground, is now shifting too.

“It was known as the piece of the property not on the landslide zone, set in stone,” Brown said. “In the last seven months, you can hear the cracking, the foundation, the walls... It’s just been crazy, the amount of movement.”

The city is hoping to expedite remediation efforts to slow the land movement, but there’s been no update on federal officials declaring Rancho Palos Verdes a disaster area, which would potentially free up additional funding streams. Brown said he remains hopeful federal help could still come, not just for the chapel, but for the 400 nearby homes also facing unprecedented movement.

Designed by Lloyd Wright, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, the 100-seat glass-and-wood chapel was only recently named a national historic landmark, a designation Brown had been chasing to help with fundraising. The new status has yet to pay dividends, however.

Without a formal congregation, unlike most other churches, Brown said raising awareness about the chapel’s shaky future has been his best option.

Since the voluntary shutdown, he’s received a flood of calls and emails from people reminiscing about their memories of the chapel and concerned for its survival.

“It’s been an iconic place for people... a touchstone for spirituality,” Brown said. “The connection for people transcends... beliefs, because people come here and they feel something.”

Though open to the public, the chapel is affiliated with the Swedenborgian Church, built to help people feel a connection between God and nature.

For Lara Lesaca, the chapel was the perfect spot for her and her husband to start their life together, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers to get married there.

“I was set on it,” Lesaca, 29, said. “It was beautiful, it all came into place.”

But learning that others won’t be able to do the same was crushing, she said.

“I was upset because I don’t know if it will end up opening,” she said, “to even visit in the future, or show my kids where we got married.”

Despite having made a hefty payment to the chapel for her wedding (though, Lesaca noted, the fee was lower when she and her husband booked a few years ago), she said she would look into contributing to the fundraiser. She doesn’t want to see the chapel’s doors closed permanently. – Tribune News Service/Los Angeles Times/Grace Toohey

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