Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes interior by Lloyd Wright Architect
Wayfarers Glass Chapel Interior | © Kevin Lee Vu

The Wayfarers Chapel, located in Palos Verdes, California, is an architectural masterpiece designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Constructed in 1951, the Chapel has become a cherished landmark, drawing visitors from across the globe. Despite its revered status, the Chapel recently encountered challenges that necessitated a temporary closure to the public. Due to land movement, it is undergoing critical renovations to ensure its preservation for future generations. Consequently, a GoFundMe campaign has been launched to support these vital restoration efforts.

Wright conceived the Chapel as a tranquil sanctuary within nature, harmonizing perfectly with its environment. Its striking glass structure boasts a soaring triangular design and a transparent glass roof that bathes the interior in natural light. The Chapel is celebrated for integrating materials such as stone, redwood, and glass, which foster a cohesive and natural ambiance. Owing to its distinctive architectural design and cultural importance, the Wayfarers Chapel has been acknowledged by the National Register of Historic Places as a prime example of organic architecture.

Wayfarers Glass Chapel Technical Information

Wayfarers Glass Chapel Photographs

Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes exterior by Lloyd Wright Architect
© Amy Theilig
Wayfarers Chapel entrance by Lloyd Wright Architect
© Amy Theilig
Glass and wood detail
© ArchEyes
Wayfarers Chapel original photograph from 1951
Wayfarer Chapel in 1951. Source: https://www.wayfarerschapel.org/

The Glass Church: A Sanctuary Above the Pacific

Celebrated for its striking modern architecture and its majestic positioning on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Chapel, also known as “The Glass Church,” was brought to life through the vision of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. It serves not only as a place of worship but also as a living tribute to Emanuel Swedenborg, the church’s founder.

The inception of this sacred space was the dream of two Swedenborgians, Elizabeth Schellenberg and Narcissa Cox Vanderlip. They envisioned a chapel suspended above the sea, a sanctuary where individuals from diverse faith backgrounds could gather to commune with the divine and immerse themselves in the beauty of nature.

To realize this vision, the talents of Lloyd Wright, a renowned architect, were enlisted at a serendipitous moment in his career. Fresh from the inspiration he garnered from a visit to a redwood grove in Northern California, Wright was deeply moved by the towering trees and their expansive canopies. This experience profoundly influenced his architectural approach to the Chapel.

Designed in the late 1940s and constructed between 1949 and 1951, Wright’s architectural genius is evident in his departure from traditional masonry. Instead, he crafted a delicate structure that merges seamlessly with the natural landscape, allowing it to define the essence of the sacred space. Subsequent additions, including a tower and a visitor center, were made in the years that followed. However, the visitor center was tragically lost in a landslide during the 1960s, adding a poignant chapter to the Chapel’s storied history.

Wayfarers Chapel Floor Plan

Wayfarers Chapel floor plan
Wayfarers Chapel Floor Plan | © Lloyd Wright

Lloyd Wright, who shortened his name from Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. to forge his own identity, favored 30/60-degree angles in his designs because they occur naturally in snowflakes, crystals, and tree branches. The trees flanking the structure are coastal redwoods. Above the altar, encased within a glass circle, stands a toyon tree, showcasing how the growing trees essentially form the chapel’s walls. The stone that caps the altar is a type of Palos Verdes stone known as Moss Back. The visible lines on it were created during the cutting process.

The round windows over the front entrance and the altar symbolize the inclusiveness of the chapel and the Swedenborgian Church, which welcomes all people.

– Lloyd Wright

Lloyd Wright carefully selected the plantings in the Chapel to mirror those found on the forest floor, aiming to unify the exterior and interior. The intention was to make the transition between outside and inside seamless, with plants growing outside brought inside to render the glass enclosure as inconspicuous as possible. The architect’s baptismal font, added in 1964, symbolizes a tiny underground mountain spring bubbling forth.

The diamond design on the floor mirrors the ceiling’s diamond pattern. The glass creates a “live” chamber effect. Lloyd Wright designed six triangular acoustic panels in the ceiling to balance the sound. Painted a light blue-green, they are meant to resemble fleecy clouds, appearing white. At night, indirect lighting in the Chapel and spotlights in the chancel produce a candlelight effect. On the Chapel’s front lawn, Italian stone pine trees, planted in the ’50s under Lloyd Wright’s guidance, now form mature arbored walkways around it.

From a Swedenborgian perspective, water symbolizes the divine truth, inspiring us to lead creative and meaningful lives. The pool’s triangular shape reflects key Christian teachings: God as a triune being and individuals as composites of soul, mind, and body. The memorial fountain within the reflection pool was installed in 1984. In 1954, the construction of the exterior planter walls, incorporating 30/60-degree angles, was completed. The front stairway and lower parking were added in 1960.

The garden between the reflection pool and the Chapel is planted to replicate a redwood forest floor, featuring azaleas, rhododendrons, coral bells, irises, and various ferns. The redwood trees constitute Lloyd Wright Grove. The Redwood Center was dedicated in April 2003, marking the 25th anniversary of Wright’s death.

The tower, envisioned in the original design, was completed in December 1954. Lloyd Wright imagined it as a “hallelujah” tower, evocative of wings and the act of soaring, as if upraised hands were holding the cross aloft. The gold cross stands 60 feet above the Chapel floor. The selection of blue terra cotta roof tile was intended to match the sky, in line with Wright’s preference for natural colors. The tower is deeply embedded into the ground and anchored into the hillside.

The grounds feature many roses and other plantings as living memorials donated to the Chapel. The Walk to Honor includes pavers dedicated to significant events and individuals in the lives of visitors. Several plants in the garden, native to the Holy Land or mentioned in the Bible, include olive, fig, and apricot trees, aloe plants, lilies, Crown-of-Thorns, and over 100 rose bushes. From the outset, Lloyd Wright played a crucial role in the landscape design, treating the plantings and architecture as a cohesive entity. The Chapel complex has been meticulously landscaped, adhering to the architectural vision of the ’50s.

In 2004, a master Landscape Plan by Eric Lloyd Wright, the architect’s son, was adopted to oversee future botanical development.

Lloyd Wright at Wayfarers Chapel
Lloyd Wright at the Wayfarers Chapel

Lloyd Wright used an unusual method to construct the various walls and pillars. Stones with their best side facing out were wired inside plywood forms. Cement was poured around them. When it was dry, the wires were cut, and the forms were removed. No cement touch-up work was permitted so that the unfinished appearance would carry the natural terrain into the walls.

Already well-known as a skilled practitioner of organic architecture, Lloyd Wright created one of the world’s most beautiful and evocative Organic Modern designs in Wayfarer Chapel. The building solidified his reputation as a master of building and landscape integration and stood as an icon of religious and contemplative architecture.

About Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (March 31, 1890 – May 31, 1978), commonly known as Lloyd Wright, was an American architect, active primarily in Los Angeles and Southern California. He was a landscape architect for various Los Angeles projects (1922–24) and provided the shells for the Hollywood Bowl (1926–28). His name is frequently confused with his more famous father, Frank Lloyd Wright.