For at least 30 years old, anyone driving south through town on Highway 101 almost certainly noticed. Atop a dark hill to the east, near the maze of freeways south of Bernal Heights, stands a large, bizarre scaffolding adorned with colorful stained-glass panels above the word “studio”, the letters of which are in white painted two by four. This intriguing sign, loosely similar to Mondrian – who for decades read “Lukas Stained Glass Art Studio” – marks the location of a single artist’s workspace.
Around 1945, a young man from Oakland named John lukas graduated from art school. Not wanting to become a commercial artist, he decides to do his apprenticeship in a stained glass window. After learning the trade for two years, he opened his own studio on Waller Street.
Lukas was one of the only practitioners in the city of this ancient and singularly demanding art. As he told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, “The technique hasn’t changed for centuries. This is one of the things that can only be learned through learning. In 1964, now married with two sons, he moved his studio to a dark cul-de-sac called Helena, south of Industrial Street and just north of the intersection of 280 and 101. Although he was armed with a map, the hapless Chronicle reporter was at first unable to find the studio, and even a gas station employee was puzzled, although he could see the new three-story building (“the only thing new ”) over a nearby hill.
Lukas was one of the country’s leading stained glass artists. His wife and business partner, Maria, was a University of Chicago-trained medical social worker who worked for the Red Cross during WWII when she met her future husband. Ninety percent of Lukas’ work was religious, although by the 1960s he began to see an increasing number of residential commissions.
Lukas’ stained glass windows are found throughout California and the West, as well as Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan. His work in San Francisco includes the massive windows of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin on Geary Boulevard, the stained glass windows in Ghirardelli Square, as well as the temple’s Baptist, Adath Israel and many other places of worship.
After the death of John Lukas in 1994, his son pseudo took over the business and continues to create stained glass in the workshop to this day. He rents the floor to the drummer and artist Prairie prince, founding member of The Tubes, arrived in San Francisco from Phoenix in 1965. About 10 years ago, the studio hosted several group art shows and parties.
Interestingly, the roof of the large square building near the top of the hill above Charter Oak Avenue is adorned with cellphone transmitters by companies that pay rent to Lukas – a strangely high-tech adornment on a building where the most low-tech, high-craftsmanship imaginable has been practiced for over half a century.