Wayfarer's Chapel, Saturday Afternoon

Going To The Chapel.
Going To The Chapel. | Photo: James Chang /Flickr/Creative Commons License

It had been hot and humid since Wednesday. Saturday was worse. We drove out of Lakewood at 11:00 a.m., and the temperature was 92. On Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach, 15 minutes later, it was 86.

We drove west past the shipping terminals of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, over the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and down Gaffey Street through San Pedro, the road rising to 25th Street where we turned toward Portuguese Bend.

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Garden and Colonnade
Garden and Colonnade | Photo: DJ Waldie

At Mermaid Drive on Palos Verdes Drive South, the tracts of incongruous ramblers from the late 1950s end. The big, new houses and condominiums begin on the slope below the road. Sage chaparral browned on the slopes above. When I was a boy, this was the way to Marineland of the Pacific, a blue bowl surrounded by fields of blooms for the downtown flower market. The flowers and captive whales are gone, replaced by golfers and condominium residents.

Palos Verdes Drive South edges Donald Trump's brassy golf course, lifts toward the western cusp of Portuguese Bend, and falls into the chaos of the Palos Verdes slide area. Big orange signs warn of "Constant land movement." You expect to see pale Palo Verde stone tumbling into the water as you pass.

It's not quite that bad. Depending on weather and human intervention, about 10 to 12 feet of rubble on the rim of the Portuguese Bend and Abalone Cove fall into the Pacific each year.

Los Angeles isn't Los Angeles unless it's moving.

The one still place in the slide area is the Wayfarer's Chapel. It's on a tongue of rock above Abalone Cove that the chapel's caretakers believe is providentially stable. The pious Swedenborgians who commissioned the chapel in 1949 imagined it as a stopping place on a weary, two-lane road between San Pedro and Rancho Palos Verdes.

Catalina, Wayfarer's Chapel, Palos Verdes.
Catalina, Wayfarer's Chapel, Palos Verdes. | Courtesy Wayfarer's Chapel

The chapel was a stark beacon when it was consecrated in 1951, but the building itself -- designed by Lloyd Wright (the other Wright's son) -- was a small marvel of glass and rock. Over the next decade, Wright added retaining walls, walks of Palo Verde stone, gardens, a bell tower, and a colonnade.

We went up the steep drive into the chapel parking lot and followed the tourists to the chapel doors. The doors face Catalina Island, and on this day of heat and wind, the island lay clear on the near horizon.

In the 1950s, despite smog, the chapel and the island would have been in abstract conversation daily across the channel.

Wayfarer's Chapel has a Sunday service in the Swedenborgian tradition. But mostly the chapel is rented out for weddings and memorial services. The revenue provides for the upkeep of the building and its 3.5 acres of landscaping.

Bell Tower.
Bell Tower. | Photo: DJ Waldie

The chapel is almost lost in its greenery now. The redwoods Wright planted close up to the chapel's glass walls screen the view of the cove southeast. The pine trees that line a flight of steps to the chapel doors obscure Catalina Island.

The chapel and its grounds were very beautiful this brutal August afternoon, a different beauty than the one they had 60 years ago. The steady wind blowing up the hillside was heavy with the smell of sage. That hadn't changed. It was cool in the shade of the colonnade. Another wedding was about to begin. The chapel organist was practicing Light My Fire.

As the bride stood by her limousine, gathering the train of her gown, land was slipping away around her.

We passing wayfarers left, drove back through the tumbled slide area where once you could see the tilted slabs of foundation and driveways ending a brush covered lot, and descended to the ports in the shadow of Point Fermin and, as a result, hotter than the Palos Verdes hillside. Catalina Island had turned gray, seemingly more distant that it had been earlier, as if it were slipping away too.

One half of the sky was blue. The other half of the sky was silver. The sea below was so divided.

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