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Wayfarers wedding chapel is a Los Angeles historic landmark

The Rev. David Brown walked through a shady tunnel of mature redwood trees, past a trio of camera-snapping tourists, and entered Wayfarers Chapel for the weekly Wednesday afternoon prayer service.

“Militant atheists who don’t believe in anything feel something in our chapel,” Brown said of the 100-seat glass and wood sanctuary designed by architect Lloyd Wright for the Swedenborgian Church in 1951. “The chapel is a Midcentury architectural gem. People may have never read our theology, but by simply walking into Wayfarers Chapel, they are living out a core part of our theology. The natural world corresponds with the spiritual.”

The United States government agrees. On Dec. 13, after a five-year review process, the Secretary of the Interior voted to classify Wayfarers Chapel as a National Historic Landmark. It joins the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, the Gamble House in Pasadena, Watts Towers and a handful of other sites in Los Angeles that are identified as national landmarks.

Wayfarers Chapel rests nestled among a grove of redwood trees overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Rancho Palos Verdes.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The church was built as a memorial to Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish philosopher and mystic, and dedicated to travelers in need of spiritual support.

For more than 70 years, the traveling “wayfarers” who have stopped along the Palos Verdes Peninsula to visit the ocean-view chapel have christened the chapel “the glass church.” (The church takes the chapel’s distinctive architecture and legacy seriously, and on Jan. 25, church leaders filed a complaint in Los Angeles federal court accusing Calamigos Ranch in Malibu of trademark and trade dress infringement including the chapel’s “circular altar” design and the double-stemmed “Y-shaped” mullions in the side glass walls of the chapel.) But the chapel was conceived by Wright — Frank Lloyd Wright’s son and an accomplished landscape designer — as a tree chapel that helps people feel a connection to God and nature.

Standing in the chapel, art and nature are one as the lines between indoors and outdoors dissolve. “The chapel makes it easy to find the divine in nature,” Brown said of the view of redwood trees and the plant-filled interior. (In the 1950s, the chapel even featured a hanging garden. “That stopped when a snake dropped out of one of the hanging plants,” Brown said).

Undeterred by the onlookers who have made the chapel one of the most Instagrammed churches in Los Angeles, Brown said he never knows what he will encounter when he leaves his office and walks across the parking lot to the chapel.

“You get everything from people taking selfies to post on Instagram to someone who is ready to commit suicide,” Brown said. “You never know what you are going to encounter. Especially since the last economic downturn.”

The arched doorway leading into the atrium of a large glass church.

Visitors are framed by the front-door arch of the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Brown estimates that more than 300,000 people visited the chapel last year and about 400 couples were married in the light-filled sanctuary, a dip from pre-pandemic levels. Celebrity nuptials have included Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay in 1958 and Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter in 1995. Four years after the Wilson-Ledbetter nuptials, the chapel hosted 800 weddings. “Visitors have told me they remember watching Jayne Mansfield getting carried to the limo,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, the chapel, which cost $25,000 to build in 1951, is showing signs of wear and tear due, in part, to its saline-rich seaside location. With no formal congregation to make weekly donations like other churches, Brown said he hopes the designation will help with their current $8-million capital improvement campaign.

“Being right next to the ocean and the salt air has been corrosive,” Brown said. “It requires an intensive amount of restoration.”

A man walking away from the camera along a path dotted with trees.

The path to Wayfarers Chapel, which offers views of the Pacific Ocean, left, is lined with redwood trees.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When the chapel opened its doors decades ago, access along the Palos Verdes Peninsula was by a gravel road and a day’s drive from downtown Los Angeles. Today, a steady stream of tourists, funerals, memorials, baptisms and weddings have made it one of the most photographed places of worship in Southern California.

“The designation elevates awareness and status and definitely puts us on the map in a global way,” Brown said. “It is an honor and a privilege to witness how powerful this sacred space can be. It brings the outdoors in and that speaks to a lot of people. I’ve met enough people over the years to know that it is a healing place, and I don’t use the word lightly. I have witnessed minor miracles in this space.”

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