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Spirits Of The City: The Temple Of Glass Above An Industrial Maze

By Gary Kamiya & Paul Madonna

Illustration By Paul Madonna
Illustration By Paul Madonna
For at least 30 years, anyone driving south through the City on Highway 101 has almost certainly noticed it. Atop an obscure hill to the east, near the freeway maze south of Bernal Heights, stands a big odd-looking scaffold adorned with colorful panels of stained glass above the word “studio,” whose letters are made of white-painted two-by-fours. This intriguing, vaguely Mondrian-like sign — which for decades read “Lukas Stained Glass Art Studio”— marks the location of a unique artist’s work space.

Around 1945, a young man from Oakland named John Lukas graduated from art school. Not wanting to become a commercial artist, he decided to apprentice himself to a stained-glass artist. After learning the craft for two years, he opened his own studio on Waller Street.

Lukas was one of the City’s only practitioners of this ancient and singularly demanding art. As he told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, “The technique has not changed for centuries. It is one of the things that can only be learned through apprenticeship.” In 1964, now married with two sons, he moved his studio to an obscure dead-end street called Helena, south of Industrial Street and just north of where 280 and 101 intersect. Despite being armed with a map, the hapless aforementioned Chronicle reporter was initially unable to find the studio, and even a gas station attendant was stumped, though able to see the new three-story building (“the only new thing around”) on top of a nearby hill.

Lukas was one of the leading stained glass artists in the country. His wife and business partner, Maria, was a University of Chicago–trained medical social worker who was working for the Red Cross in World War II when she met her future husband. Ninety percent of Lukas’ work was religious, though in 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 in Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan. His work in San Francisco includes the massive windows in the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Geary Boulevard, the stained glass in Ghirardelli Square, plus Temple Baptist, Adath Israel and many other houses of worship.

After John Lukas died in 1994, his son Nick took over the business and continues to create stained glass in the studio to this day. He rents the upstairs to drummer and artist Prairie Prince, a founding member of the Tubes who 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 big boxy building near the top of the hill above Charter Oak Avenue is festooned with cellphone transmitters by companies who pay rent to Lukas — an oddly high-tech adornment on a building where the most low-tech, high-skill craft imaginable has been practiced for more than half a century.

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