Palos Verdes landslide leads to removal of Wayfarers Chapel


A sidewalk and steps at Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes buckles from land movement. The concrete steps are relatively new. Photo by Susan Valot

Perched on a hillside above the Pacific Ocean with views of Catalina Island, Wayfarers Chapel is a landmark on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It’s a popular place for weddings and a national historic landmark. But it’s been closed to the public since February, as a slow-moving landslide rips it apart. 

Rancho Palos Verdes and church officials explained on Monday that they plan to take apart the historic building, piece by piece, and then put it back together again, IKEA-style, somewhere safer and more stable.

What does it look like inside?

The chapel, designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is surrounded by redwood trees that have matured since its opening on Mother’s Day in 1951. 

When you walk into the chapel, you see redwood beams reaching toward the sky and curving into the shape of an upside-down hull of a boat. Between the beams are glass windows. So when you’re inside, you feel like you’re outside.

Wayfarers Chapel sits amid redwood trees, designed to feel like “tree walls.” Reporters talk to officials outside the chapel on May 13, 2024. Photo by Susan Valot.

When did the landslide start?

The Portuguese Bend area of the Palos Verdes Peninsula has been sliding for about a quarter-million years. Houses were built in a geologic lull, but land movement picked up again in the 1950s.

The movement since has been slow, but with heavy winter rains for the last two years, plus the hurricane last August, it’s moving faster.

Rain soaks into a layer of clay deep underground, which swells and causes the land to slide toward the sea. City officials say this past winter’s rains likely won’t reach that clay layer for another couple of months, so there may be more issues to come.

The land beneath this area is now moving six to seven inches per week. In the middle of the ancient landslide complex, where the land is moving the fastest, officials say it’s moving about 39 feet per year.

The accelerated movement is starting to rip apart Wayfarers Chapel. In September, a pane of glass broke for the first time, and the chapel’s Reverend Dan Burchett says about 15 panes have broken since, with two falling on the roof. Right before a news conference today as journalists gathered, a pane of glass shattered.

The project manager overseeing the chapel’s dismantling says building cracks are opening at a rate of about three inches per week. 

Land movement rips apart sidewalks around Wayfarers Chapel. Even the cornerstone of the chapel, installed in 1949, has been cracked. Photo by Susan Valot.

What are church officials going to do to save the building?

They’re going to take it all apart and move it. Dismantling is scheduled to start this week and continue for about four weeks as workers remove the redwood beams, glass panels, and blue tiles — all delicate parts of the architectural design. Later, they will focus on removing rock work. 

The pieces will be put onto trucks and taken to a local storage site provided by the city. They have to keep the redwood in the area because it’s become acclimatized to the Palos Verdes microclimate, which is damp due to the proximity to the ocean. The redwood beams could be ruined if they were taken to a drier location. 

Eventually, perhaps in the next four years, they hope to put the chapel back together. The idea is to stabilize the original site, if possible, using dewatering wells so that the chapel could return to the same location. Burchett says they want to stay on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The whole process is very expensive, estimated to cost at least hundreds of thousands of dollars. And there is no public funding because the chapel is owned by a private congregation. They plan to hire someone to help with fundraising and have created a GoFundMe campaign.

It’s not just this one building on this landslide – lots of people live nearby.

There are about 400 homes in the ancient landslide area. Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Ara Mihranian is worried about them. 

“We’re here, concerned about what’s happening to the chapel,” he pointed out at the news conference, “but if you drive off the main road and go into the neighborhoods, it’s devastating. So many people are fearing that they’re going to lose their homes.”

This is an area that’s been slowly creeping for decades, enough so that some people have put their houses on make-shift rollers.

Historical architect Katie Horak, who helped Wayfarers Chapel put together its application for historic landmark status, says it’s not unprecedented to have to move an historic building, but this is the first she’s heard of one being relocated because of a slow-moving landslide. She says the term “environmental resiliency” comes up often in the industry recently, as architects have to think about moving historic buildings because of climate change-driven issues such as sea level rise and erosion.

In the case of the Rancho Palos Verdes slide, only three buildings have been red-tagged, including the Wayfarers Chapel administration building and two homes. But officials can only red-tag homes that are reported to them or on which they can see exterior damage. So it’s not clear how extensive the damage really is in the area.



Susan Valot