From the Field: Wayfarers Chapel

Under a canopy of redwoods overlooking the Pacific sits
Lloyd Wright's glass church.

09.9.2020

The California coast is a natural phenomenon in and of itself. And while thinking of significant architectural sites residing along this beautiful coast (the Eames House, the Salk Institute) you cannot imagine them residing anywhere else except here - perched on their bluffs, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

One of our favorite places for a moment of respite is Lloyd Wright's Wayfarers Chapel. The story of the chapel began in the late 1920s with two women, Elizabeth Schellenberg and Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, members of the Swedenborgian Church. The former had a dream of a small chapel perched on a hillside looking out over the Pacific where wayfarers could stop and commune with God and nature. The latter had 3.5 acres off the single lane gravel roads that ran through the Palos Verdes peninsula.

These two women held onto this dream for nearly twenty years, through The Great Depression and World War II, before hiring Lloyd Wright. Inspired by a recent trip through California’s Redwoods, Lloyd Wright’s goal was to “achieve a delicate enclosure that allows the surrounding landscape to define the sacred space.” Not only did he succeed in his vision through the use of timber and glass in the chapel’s construction but through the various ferns planted inside the chapel as found on the forest floor and his foresight to plant redwoods surrounding the chapel; redwoods that would find their maturity after his passing as they began to provide the natural canopy he envisioned.

Almost seventy years have passed since the chapel opened in 1951. Its beauty continues to resonate and inspire, practically calling on us for this visit. A visit during trying times nonetheless that instill gratitude for Elizabeth Schellenberg and Narcissa Cox Vanderlip; if only they had this beautiful glass chapel to find respite in throughout the historical events of their time. Just as Alain de Botton writes in The Architecture of Happiness, “It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things.”