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 Canadian 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'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 and, closer to home, Shenanigans restaurant in Glendale.
Judson Studios is 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, nine artisans continue to produce stained-glass windows for the ecclesiastical and secular worlds, employing techniques that have not changed much since the craft began to flourish in the 12th Century.
The works fashioned at Judson Studios for 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.
600 Colors of Glass
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 which uses inch-thick chunks of glass called dalles that are held in place by epoxy or concrete.
The handful of the larger, family-operated stained-glass studios in America that have managed to survive as long as Judson Studios are 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."
'Life of Their Own'
The studios' 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 is not sure if it will be her. Lisa, 22, said she jokes about running the business with her younger brother, David, 16, but it remains to be seen if that will happen.
Judson Studios 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. "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."
'Got Into My Blood'
An Episcopalian priest who serves at a parish in Compton, the Rev. Douglas Judson, Walter's older brother, spends three days a week at the studio fashioning faceted-glass windows. Douglas Judson, 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.
"It was a relief to me when he went into the business," Douglas Judson said of his brother, who couldn't decide whether to become an attorney 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."
Walter Judson acknowledged that he is "no good with my hands," but he said 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.