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The iconic Wayfarers Chapel may have to close because of mudslide damage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the past two winters, Southern California has gotten more than average rainfall. In Los Angeles County, that has led to unprecedented instability in an area known for landslides. There's been a tenfold increase in the number of feet the land has shifted compared with the year before. Mudslides are covering roads, buckling pavement, buckling trails and destabilizing homes and other structures. As LAist's Yusra Farzan reports, that means one historic chapel is at risk of closing its doors for good.

YUSRA FARZAN, BYLINE: In the quiet town of Rancho Palos Verdes south of LA, roads wind along hillsides with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. On one of them, you'll find the Wayfarers Chapel...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CHIMING)

FARZAN: ...A geometric masterpiece of glass panels and wooden beams surrounded by redwood trees. But the ground around the chapel is getting more and more unstable.

DAN BURCHETT: You'll notice in the ground cracks everywhere, and they basically run from the front of the chapel all the way back.

FARZAN: That's Reverend Dan Burchett, the executive director of the 73-year-old chapel. Since the 1950s, the land here has been somewhat in motion as part of an active landslide complex. But due to the excessive rainfall these past two winters, says Burchett, it's gotten a lot worse. Fissures in the ground are around an arm deep. Sidewalks bulge up. Doors have shifted from their frames, and several panes of the glass walls are starting to crack and separate.

BURCHETT: You see a glass broken on the left above the altar, on the right above the altar. This one has a crack all the way across it.

FARZAN: This chapel is an icon in Southern California. It was recently designated a National Historic Landmark. Built in the 1950s, it's a prime example of organic architecture, which was pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. His son, Lloyd Wright, was the one who actually designed the chapel. The idea behind organic architecture is that the building should be in harmony with its environment. Adrian Scott Fine, president of the Los Angeles Conservancy, says the glass walls of the Wayfarers Chapel gives the illusion of being outside.

ADRIAN SCOTT FINE: It's almost this idea that it just kind of sprouted there on its own, but it's very clearly something that was intentional, designed and created.

FARZAN: Since mid-February, however, the chapel has been closed because of the damage. That means people can't come to appreciate its architectural beauty and also no Sunday services, baptisms or weddings.

NAOMI WHITE: Pretty much my whole adult life, I always pictured getting married there.

FARZAN: Naomi White booked the chapel for her wedding in July. Having grown up just 15 minutes away, she had her heart set on walking down the aisle at Wayfarers. She says it's memorialized so many events in the community.

WHITE: It's special to so many people. And so I'm, you know, not certain it can be saved, but I'm optimistic that, like, all of us are so invested personally in this monument. I mean, it really is a landmark. It really is such a major part of the city. So I'm hoping that with the right scientific resources and with the right, like, emotional, financial support, hopefully, it can be saved.

FARZAN: Church officials are currently fundraising to repair the grounds. After that, they say they'll turn to restoring the chapel itself. There's still no timeline set for its reopening.

For NPR News, I'm Yusra Farzan in Rancho Palos Verdes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Yusra Farzan