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."
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