Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wayfarers' Chapel: Lloyd Wright's Tree Chapel

Nestled in a grove of redwood trees along Palos Verdes Drive South, the Wayfarers' Chapel enjoys a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. For over fifty years the Chapel has welcomed countless wayfarers. But, how many know the story of the glass, stone and redwood gem set along the southern coast of Rancho Palos Verdes?
The Wayfarers' Chapel is the creation of two geniuses separated by centuries: Architect Lloyd Wright, son of the famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright; and, Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18 Century mystic and theologian. Whereas Lloyd Wright described the outer environmental world and our relationship to it, Swedenborg described the inner world of mind and spirit. It is this dynamic relationship of inner and outer worlds that makes the Chapel unique.

The Wayfarers' Chapel began as a dream of Elizabeth Schellenberg, a member of the Swedenborgian Church who was also the local postmistress of the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the late 1920s. She dreamed of a little chapel on a hillside over the Pacific where wayfarers could stop to rest, meditate and give thanks for the beauty and wonder of creation. At that time, the Peninsula was largely open farmland with a two-lane gravel road skirting the shoreline from San Pedro to Palos Verdes Estates. The drive from Los Angeles to the Peninsula was an all-day outing.

Another Peninsula resident, Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, also a member of the Swedenborgian Church, offered to make the dream come true and agreed to contribute land for the chapel site. Mrs. Vanderlip invited a young architect, Ralph Jester, to draw up plans for the chapel. Ralph and his wife Lois were long-time residents of the Peninsula and lived in a Lloyd Wright designed home on Narcissa Drive. Unfortunately, however, the great depression of the 1930s and then World War II delayed the development of the plans for the church.

Following the war, Jester reviewed his sketches of a Spanish mission-type chapel; not satisfied with his design, he urged his friend Lloyd Wright to apply his genius to the project.

This offer came shortly after Lloyd Wright had a profound experience while visiting the redwoods in northern California. While having lunch at a small restaurant, he looked up through the skylights and saw the redwoods arching overhead, forming a cathedral-like surroundings. He vowed that this would be his inspiration if he ever received a commission to build a church. When approached by Ralph Jester, the natural tree chapel took form in his mind.

"I want the trees and their trunks to be seen," he said, "and the space beyond, so that those who worship in the sanctuary will perceive the grandeur of the world around them and beyond them. . .I used glass so that the walls and roof are transparent. The trees, the natural growth, the sky and the sea become part of the Chapel. The glass provides protection, but at the same time gives the congregation a sense of outer as well as inner space."

Lloyd Wright's design of glass, Palos Verdes stone, and redwood beams was a startling innovation and captured the imagination of the Swedenborgian church members throughout the United States and Canada. Church members pledged $25,000 for the building and Mrs. Vanderlip donated over three acres. On July 16, 1949 the cornerstone of the Chapel was laid and the site consecrated. Dedication service was held on May 13, 1951, with the president of the Swedenborgian Church officiating.

In 1954 Wright designed the soaring Hallelujah Tower that goes down two stories into the soil and locks in solidly to anchor the sanctuary to the hillside. At night the tower with its lighted cross is visible for many miles out to sea. Sailors passing through the Catalina Channel call it God's candle. A chime of sixteen bells in the tower proclaims each quarter hour, peals forth at the end of wedding celebrations, and plays for special events and services.


Anonymous said...

I attended the laying of the cornerstone for the Wayfarer's Chapel. A neighbor of Mrs. Vanderlip, Charles Laughton, read from the Bible. I had the chance to speak to him just prior to his reading. Also attending was another neighbor, Ethel Barrymore. She was next to me at the service. I was just a teenager, and was impressed by the site chosen for the Chapel, and of course, by the glamour of those attending. After the Chapel was built, I was even more impressed by the wonderful openness of the structure. I met the architect, Lloyd Wright, after a lecture he gave at the Swedenborgian Church in Los Angeles, which was then located at 5th and Westmoreland. The Chapel is beautiful, a wonderful place for couples to have a wedding ceremony.

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