GLASS: L.A. Business Shows True Colors : Stained-Glass Studios a Clear Cut Above Crowd

Times Staff Writer

Warned by a doctor about his failing health, 19th-Century painter and art professor William Lees Judson decided in 1893 to leave behind the harsh winters of London, Ontario, and spend his last days in a more pleasant climate.

A practical man, Judson figured that, "since he was going to die, he was going to die warm," said his great-grandson, Walter W. Judson, in recounting how the elder Judson came to settle along the banks of the Arroyo Seco in what is now the northeast Los Angeles community of Highland Park.

As it turned out, it would be another 33 years before William Lees Judson, who suffered from lung and heart problems, died. Within four years of his arrival in Southern California, he persuaded three of his four grown sons to follow him and founded what has become the premier stained-glass studio on the West Coast, the Judson Studios.

The altar in the Chapel of All Creeds at the nation's Capitol, the ceiling of the Tropicana Hotel's main casino in Las Vegas and the South Coast Shopping Plaza's glass dome are all examples of stained-glass work crafted by Judson Studios artisans.

Other examples can be found in the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco, Diamond Head Mortuary in Honolulu, or, closer to home, Shenanigans Restaurant in Glendale.

At the annual convention of the Stained Glass Assn. of America in Toronto this week, the Judson Studios was one of the five major stained-glass studios in America to be honored. It was the only studio west of the Mississippi River so recognized.

The Judson Studios are in a rambling, two-story building at 200 S. Avenue 66 that was declared a historic cultural monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board in 1969. There, the nine artisans continue to produce stained-glass windows for the ecclesiastical and secular worlds, employing techniques that haven't changed much since the craft began to flourish in the 12th Century.

The works fashioned at Judson Studios for countless churches, hospital chapels, memorial parks, schools, hotels, banks, restaurants, bars, movie sets and private residences range in style from the traditional to the contemporary to the abstract.

From its stock of more than 600 colors of hand-blown and machine-made glass, the studio produces both leaded and faceted stained-glass windows, a more free-flowing, abstract form of the art that uses inch-thick chunks of glass called dalles that are held in place by epoxy or concrete.

Only a handful of the larger, family-operated stained-glass studios in America have survived as long as the Judson Studios, all on the East Coast, said Robert Millard, a stained-glass expert.

"Usually, the first generation seems to be started by a burst of artistic persuasion," Millard said. "The second generation seems to have brought in some type of business acumen. The third generation continued with some sort of business acumen, but more often than not the business deteriorated."

The studio's current owner, Walter W. Judson, 44, is optimistic about the operation's future.

"I think the studio will continue. Studios have a life of their own, family or no family," he said. "Judson just happens to be the name of the company that has gathered these craftsmen together."

His daughter, Lisa Judson-Connely, who began helping her father with sales two years ago, said she thinks it would be exciting to have a fifth-generation Judson take over the business when her father retires, but she's not sure if it will be her. Lisa, 22, says she jokes about running the business with her younger brother, David, 16, but it remains to be seen if that will happen.

"I don't necessarily want to be a career woman; I want to raise a family," said Lisa, who is expecting her first child this fall. "If my brother and I were to run the business together, I could still be involved in it and not have to devote my life to it."

'Special Feeling'

Still, Lisa said, "It's really a special feeling to think that my ancestors were doing this type of thing and that they're the ones who got this started and we've been able to continue it for so long."

Except for a chance meeting with a Los Angeles booster that led William Lees Judson, the English-born son of a stained-glass craftsman, to opt for California over Florida when he left Canada, the evolution of the Judson Studios has been as carefully crafted as the works of art it produces.

As Walter Judson tells the story, his great-grandfather was standing in a Chicago train station with tickets to Florida in his hand when he struck up a conversation with George Wharton James, a Los Angeles Times reporter who encouraged the elder Judson to trade in his tickets and head west. He did, and soon after arriving established himself as a painter of the Southern California landscape.

Motto Above Entrance

Judson soon was at the forefront of the Arroyo Guild of Craftsmen, an influential group of artists, sculptors and architects who promoted a blossoming arts and crafts movement. The group's motto, "We Can," is engraved on the balcony above the main entrance to the Judson Studios.

Before wiring his sons to come to Los Angeles in 1895, William Lees Judson, or "the professor" as he was called, founded the Los Angeles College of Fine Arts and Architecture, which later became USC's school of fine arts. Classes were held in the building on Avenue 66 until the college moved to USC's central campus in 1920.

The Judson Studios, originally called the Colonial Art Glass Co., began in 1897 when Walter H., J. Lionel and Paul Judson, at their father's behest, set themselves up in a small studio on Mott Alley near the Old Plaza, which is close to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Tile, Mosaic Work

Besides making stained-glass windows, the Judsons did tile and mosaic work. The brothers relocated to Highland Park when the fine arts college moved; Mott Alley has since disappeared, a victim of the Hollywood Freeway.

In the boom-town atmosphere of pre-Depression Los Angeles, competition for big jobs was fierce, but the Judson Studios survived because "there's always been a strong-willed Judson . . . with a total dedication to stained glass," Walter W. Judson said. That dedication carried the studios through the lean days of the Depression and World War II when doing repair work kept the place alive, Judson said.

After the war, the boom days returned, and 30 craftsmen were employed at the studio. "It got so it almost became counterproductive," Judson said. "It was difficult to keep track of what was going on."

Rule on Staff Size

His father, Horace T. Judson, an attorney by training who ran the studio at the time with a cousin, learned a lesson from that experience. Horace, who lives in retirement near Escondido, established a rule that the studio would never again employ more than 15 craftsmen at once.

Walter, who took over the business from his father in 1975, has stuck to that rule: "If you go over 15, you'll make more money. But you can lose your reputation too."

So far, the Judson Studios hasn't lost its reputation. It is "definitely top rank," said friendly rival Crosby Willet, who heads Willet Stained Glass, a Philadelphia-based family operation that was among the five studios honored by the Stained Glass Assn. this week.

"As far as artistic ability and craftsmanship," Willet said, "Judson Studios is one of the best in the country. They do such a variety of work but they do it all well."

How Window Is Made

The making of a stained-glass window begins with an artist's sketch that, once approved by the customer, is made into a full-size working pattern called a cartoon, a word that originated with the art of stained-glass making. Marked with the outline of the leading and numbers corresponding to the position of each piece of glass and the bins where the different colored glass sheets are stored, the cartoon resembles a paint-by-numbers kit.

The pieces of glass are cut to the correct sizes and shapes and, if designs or features are called for, painted with an oxide of lead that is fused to the glass in a kiln.

Next, the pieces of glass are placed in proper sequence, like a jigsaw puzzle, and held together with strips of lead whose joints are soldered together on the backside. The window is then waterproofed with a mix of turpentine, plaster and lampblack dye that does not adhere to the glass but fills in the space between the glass and the lead.

Saddle bars, strategically placed so they do not interfere with the design, are fitted on the back of the window to make it sturdy.

Attracted by Reputation

Of the nine craftsmen now working at the studio, six served their apprenticeships there. The three who haven't say they were attracted to the studio because of its reputation, including Ann Pope from Bangor, Northern Ireland.

Pope, the only studio employee to hold a college degree in the making of stained-glass windows, said she heard about the Judson Studios from the company where she purchased glass while attending the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.

Pope, who has been with the studio for five years, met Walter Judson while he was visiting Scotland and has not regretted leaving home to accept what she said is her first professional job. One of two artists who sketch the designs for the windows, Pope, 27, referred to her work as fun. "I really enjoy it here," she said. "Every project you work on is totally different--there's no time to get bored."

Neighborhood Resident

The same enjoyment of the craft holds true for Eddie Rey, who was recruited a little bit closer to the studios. Rey, 29, grew up down the block from the studio. Hired eight years ago as an apprentice after serving as a paratrooper in the Army, Rey is carrying on in his own family tradition: His father worked for the Judson Studios 19 years and he remembers "hanging around" in the studio as a young boy.

Two other craftsmen have family connections to the Judson Studios: Fergus Foley, 25, an eight-year veteran glass painter whose father spent 10 years working for the Judsons, and Douglas Judson, Walter Judson's older brother.

An Episcopalian priest who serves at a parish in Compton, Douglas Judson spends three days a week at the studio fashioning faceted-glass windows. Douglas, 50, is content to let his younger brother run the business, while he loses himself in a task that he says "got into my blood" when he used to sweep the floors of the studio as a young boy.

Brother's Relief

"It was a relief to me when he went into the business," Douglas said of his brother, who couldn't decide whether to become a lawyer or enter the foreign service before choosing the stained-glass business in 1962. "I wanted the tradition to continue but I didn't want to do the business."

For his part, Walter acknowledges that he is "no good with my hands," but he says he enjoys the "thinking part" of conferring with clients, doing some research and then getting together with the studio artists to give shape and form to the picture in his mind.

The studio, Walter Judson said with relish, just launched one of its biggest projects in years, a contract to produce 94 stained-glass windows for the soon-to-be-built Mary Queen of the Universe Catholic Church in Orlando, Fla.

Ecclesiastical work is still the backbone of the business, providing 80% of the studios' orders last year, and the project with the Orlando church is, in Walter Judson's opinion, "one of those rare occasions where you can put good art and good architecture together."

The job will take quite a few years to complete, he said, adding with a twinkle in his eye, "I imagine my heirs will be working on that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°