Windows on the World : * Stained glass: Walter Judson’s historic studio will be the center of reconstruction work for churches damaged by the Sierra Madre quake.


When the Sierra Madre earthquake struck, Walter Judson--fourth-generation stained-glass maker of the historic Judson Studios in Highland Park--was conducting a tour of cathedrals in England.

“A report came over the radio . . . then we didn’t hear another word,” recalls Judson. “We didn’t know whether they were talking about the town or the mountain range.”

When Judson phoned his studio, he learned that the building hadn’t been significantly damaged--it’s designed to “rock and roll like a shimmy dancer.” As for his precious glass, which totals more than 1,000 varieties valued at $100,000-plus, it was buffered--as usual--inside wooden packing crates.


The quake left Judson’s studios virtually unscathed and the historic stained glass center will become the epicenter for much of the reconstruction efforts to repair San Gabriel Valley-area churches.

“God works in mysterious and even ironic ways,” says Judson from his office overlooking the Arroyo Seco. For the next few months, he and his staff of 10 will be consumed by repair work at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, which was heavily damaged.

“The irony of the whole thing at Westminster,” Judson adds, “is that they were going to make their final payment on the repair work from the Whittier earthquake the day after the (Sierra Madre) earthquake.”

In Southern California, where glass-and-steel buildings abound, brilliant and bejeweled stained glass windows still have a place.

“Many churches feel an obligation to restore the arts when they’re destroyed and stained glass is definitely an art that the church has fostered for years,” says Kent D. Lawrence, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian, where damage is estimated at $500,000.

“There is a sense of both grandeur and beauty,” he says, describing how sunlight streams through stained glass. “Gothic architecture raised one’s sights to God. That was its importance.”

All over the Los Angeles area, there are “marvelous examples” of stained glass, says Judson, 50, whose family logo--a griffin--adorns scores of glass panes on banks, hotels, shopping centers, synagogues and churches, including Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena, which has glass installed by Judson’s grandfather.

The Judson stamp also is on the Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the Radiance Corridor at the Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena, the Air Force Academy chapel in Colorado Springs and the Tropicana casino in Las Vegas.

The Judson family history is as colorful as its stained glass.

In 1893 William Lees Judson, a Civil War veteran, painter of Indian encampments for the Canadian government and headmaster of a Chicago art school, was told by doctors that he had six months to live. With visions of surrendering his final days beneath palm trees and blue, balmy skies, he headed for Los Angeles.

“He waited around to die for a couple of years,” says Walter Judson, standing next to a photo of his great-grandfather in the entrance to the studio dubbed the rogue’s gallery, “then decided he better get on with his life.”

The rejuvenated William Lees--who lived for another 35 years--eventually fell in with the USC crowd. In 1895, the ardent band of Methodist educators made him founding dean of the art school, which flourished under his leadership.

Once settled, William Lees wired his four sons, all working as stained-glass craftsmen in the Midwest, to come to ply their trade in the absence of any real competition. The three who came--John, Walter and Paul--helped him found the Judson Studios in 1897, which also served as USC’s School of Fine Arts and Architecture until 1920.

Frequent visitors to the California Mission-style building included Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Batchelder and Henry and Charles Greene. Like William Lees, they believed that an artist should be able to both design and produce his own work.

Starting with William Lees’ death in 1928, the reins of the studio were passed from one generation of Judsons to the next. During the Great Depression, Horace Judson, schooled as an attorney, concentrated on stained glass in mausoleums to stay in business.

Then World War II came, causing shortages in materials critical to producing stained-glass windows.

“We could have done a lot of work,” Judson says. “People were starting to get back on their feet, but there was no lead, no copper.”

Similarly, “we couldn’t get any glass made because anybody who was young enough to blow glass was either in Europe or the South Pacific,” says Walter Judson, who entered the family business in 1962, succeeding father Horace in 1979. Walter’s son, William Walter, 26, ensures that the Judson line will continue.

Earthquakes also have been good for business. After the 1971 Sylmar quake that destroyed the Glendale Presbyterian Church, Judson was able to lift the stained-glass windows out of the damaged church and reinstall the picture areas in the chapel of the new church.

Today, the studio is a beehive of activity under the stewardship of Walter Judson, much as it was while William Lees Judson was at the helm.

Oddly enough, the techniques used to produce stained-glass windows have changed little since the beginning of this millennium, when most experts agree that the “lost art” originated.

In the Judson design room--called the “think tank"--designers make a watercolor sketch based on their discussions with a prospective client. The small-scale study is intended to convey an impression of the color and light of the full-size window.

Judson often must appeal to the nuances of each faith and denomination to gain approval for his designs. “All these people that call themselves fundamentalists are fundamentally different from each other,” he says.

Judson’s vast inventory, now computerized, includes expensive handblown antique or pot-metal glass valued for its natural imperfections as well as more affordable machine-rolled cathedral glass. The glass varies from an eighth of an inch to more than an inch in thickness.

“Every time we receive a new shipment of glass, it’s like Christmas around here,” Judson says, pulling a sheet of vermilion glass from one of the studio’s upstairs storage crates.

Attention to detail and commitment to craft are hallmarks of the Judson Studios. On the glazing room’s walls, lettered in Art Nouveau style by USC art students in the early 1900s, appears the message: “Art is the only way of doing things so only the best is worthwhile.”

Judson maintains that contemporary stained-glass craftsmanship surpasses even the heyday of the art in the 11th and 12th centuries. “Now we pay everybody so much we can’t allow for mistakes,” Judson says. “Back then, workers got paid room and board, two shillings a year and a new coat on Jan. 1.

“Today, we’re much more careful in what we do. The whole mentality is different.”

While stained-glass workers labor painstakingly over every phase of their craft, theirs is not a humorless pursuit, Judson says.

Judson recalled a 14th-Century chapel window in Oxford, England, in which stained-glass artists painted a lion in a very uncharacteristic and uncivil posture. “He’s sticking his tongue out and crossing his eyes at you,” Judson says.

Designer Herb Meinke, who has sketched about 2,000 designs since he joined the Judson studio in 1962, admits that since some embarrassing appendages made their way into the glass, he counts fingers and toes before the windows are installed.

A few theological inconsistencies may occasionally crop up as well.

“There was one time when (church officials) were pretty sure that when Christ was baptized, the water was above his knee, and we had it below the knee,” Meinke says sheepishly.

However, church officials usually defer to Judson when trying to ascertain the value of their stained glass collection.

“I recently did an (appraisal) for a replacement for one church,” Judson says, “and the value of just the windows came to nearly $1 million at current prices. I think they were pleasantly stunned.”

Making Stained Glass

* A full-scale drawing or cartoon is produced, showing the width of the leads and the details to be painted on the glass.

* The cartoon is traced over three layers of paper separated by carbon paper. The top drawing is numbered to keep the sections from becoming an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle; the middle layer serves as the reference for the glazier to place and bind the lead with the glass; the bottom drawing is cut into pieces along the lead lines with three-bladed patterning shears, which remove the thin strip of paper that accounts for the core of the grooved lead that will divide the pieces of glass in the finished window.

* The glass is then selected from the large stock of more than 1,000 colors and varieties from around the world.

* A glass cutter places one of the patterns on a piece of the desired color and, with a diamond or steel wheel, cuts to the shape of the pattern.

* A painter then creates detail by painting black or negative lines on the glass to block out light. The paint is a mixture of lead and ground glass.

* The pieces are fired in a kiln at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit to fuse the paint and glass.

* The glass is taken to the glazing room, where the glazier connects the glass with strips of grooved H-shaped lead came. The joints are soldered on both sides, and the entire window is waterproofed with a sticky sealant that’s the consistency of homogenized peanut butter.