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Stained Glass Tradition Lives On

Just a couple of miles from the Capitol sits a nationally known stained-glass studio with strong links to Capitol Hill.

Adams Morgan Stained Glass studio has restored windows for Catholic University’s original chapel and windows designed by Calvert Faux and Frederick Law Olmstead in the President’s residence at Gallaudet University. The studio is located near Catholic University and is recognized for its excellent conservation work as well as its design work.

Daniel Goldon Wolkoff opened the studio in 1989.  To enter the studio from the back of the dark brown residential home is to step back into time.  It is a place where a master of his craft is passing his knowledge to younger apprentices the old fashioned way.

In this space there is admiration for the past and appreciation for taking time to learn the correct techniques. Everything is approached with reverence and respect for the work at hand. No short cuts allowed. And a sense of gratitude for wisdom shared and interest shown flows in both directions.

Not all stained glass is old. Daniel Wolkoff loves to create new glass pieces in the form of collage inspired by the post war German school of stained glass. Photos: Adams Morgan-Stained Glass Studio

The art and craft of stained glass is often described as a “dying art.”  This concern is shared by Daniel, but with the arrival of his latest apprentice, Hannah Bernhardt, he is feeling more optimistic.

Starting back in 1975, at the age of 24, Daniel learned traditional stained glass technique as a student of America’s foremost stained glass restorer, Jack Cushen. His devotion to those traditional techniques has endured throughout his career. “I was privileged to learn from some of the best conservators,” Daniel says.  “I am so excited to be in a position to return the effort to students interested in learning.”

Fast forward to 2020 and the beginning of the COVID pandemic. David Bernhardt, a local contractor and well-known carpenter, stopped by the studio to check in on his old friend Daniel. Hannah, David’s daughter, came along for the visit. The Bernhardt family is known for its Northeast DC community project, Dwell DC, which was a popular community space for local artists.

When she stopped at Adams Morgan Stained Glass, Capitol Hill native Hannah was 24 years old, the same age at which Daniel began his remarkable career. That casual visit  was the beginning of Hannah finding her life’s journey.

“Something clicked for me that day,” she says. “I was between things and listening to Daniel talk about his work with such passion and devotion, I realized this was what I wanted to learn.”

Hannah had graduated from Hunter College with a degree in Women’s Studies, and certainly had never thought of herself as an artist. “I still am not sure I would call myself an artist, but I am really gaining confidence in my stained-glass skills and find the work so rewarding” says Hannah.

The master, Daniel, quickly disagrees with Hannah on her artistic assessment. He backs up his enthusiasm for Hannah’s artistic talent by sharing photos of two large windows, designed and built by Hannah, that were recently installed at the Salvation Army headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.The style is very contemporary, featuring bold colors and spiral lines. The breathtaking windows speak to the hope, grace, and spirit of the organization.

Conservation of Stained Glass
Adam Morgan Stained Glass Studio is often contracted to conserve and restore decades-old stained glass windows. It is a careful, highly-detailed task requiring great patience.  Hannah says Daniel’s first piece of advice to her was that there is no room for ego in stained glass practice. Being trusted with restoring old works of art, it is crucial to honor the original artistry and understand your own role with respect and humility.

Daniel says that it is the silver, lead and metal in stained glass works that deteriorate over time, somewhere between 75 and 100 years. Usually, the glass itself remains in good shape. But the wood framework holding the windows can also give way, putting the treasured piece in jeopardy.

Transoms for your front door are very popular and a specialty of the studio. Hannah has just created one for 224 10th Street, S.E. soon to be installed.

To begin a restoration, the piece is taken out of the frame and a rubbing of the art is made, like a brass rubbing at a gravesite. This provides a map of the piece, and as the glass pieces are removed, each one is numbered and located on the map. That’s just one example of the precision and care taken at every step of the process. Some restoration projects can involve removing and restoring hundreds of small glass pieces.

Hannah points out that another careful element in this painstaking work is preventing exposure to any toxic pathogens when removing old, deteriorated lead. Special masks and gloves are employed. “If the piece is really old, Daniel sometimes builds boxes to submerge the piece in water to further reduce risk for lead exposure,” says Hannah.

After all of these steps are complete, the actual work of putting the window back together begins, bending new lead pieces around the original glass. And, after all that hard and artful work is done, the stained glass work is ready for a new lease on life.

Creating Collage and Modern
Adams Morgan Stained Glass takes on restoration projects both local and far away. But they also work on creating new stained glass works. Daniel appreciates the artistry of the post-war German school of stained glass.  In particular he admires the work of Johannes Schreiter, who is known for incorporating the lead as part of the design rather than just a structural element.  Schreiter’s work also started the use of clear glass in design.

Daniel and Hannah working on a traditional Tiffany styled lamp in the Brookland studio.

Daniel has created many beautiful collage glass pieces that mix the traditional borders with contemporary designs in the center.  He recently has designed some clear transom windows for a kitchen in the DC area that have been recognized and featured in Architecture Digest.

Hannah is following suit. She starts with a drawing of the piece she intends to create.  Then, she uses an overhead projector to recreate the actual size of the project, capturing the nuances and intricacies of each piece of glass. Next, it’s time to cut the glass.  “Focus, concentration, and patience are always needed,” says Hannah, “without them you put yourself at risk for a cut.”

Michael O’Connor and Vlad Gololobov of the Shaw neighborhood are very appreciative of the work of Hannah on their transom. “I like how collaborative the studio is, and how they took our concept and turned it into a wonderful design,” says Michael. Hannah presented a number of drafts along the way, and a trip to the studio also helped them understand the hard work that goes into producing a masterpiece. “We couldn’t be more pleased.”

Giving Back to the Hill
As a Capitol Hill native, Hannah has enjoyed designing and creating projects in the neighborhood including front door transoms that incorporate the address of the house.  She has just finished one soon to be installed at 224 Tenth Street, SE. “I still have much to learn but I am thrilled to be creating these.   Getting to share it with my childhood neighborhood makes it even more special.” says Hannah. A series of stained glass transoms along a stretch of New Jersey Avenue SE is another place where the studio has left its imprint on the Hill.

Master and Apprentice
To visit Daniel and Hannah in their studio is to experience the joy and sense of achievement shared by people who love their work. This master and apprentice are carrying on the tradition of a craft that reaches back to the Renaissance.

The master is ready to share his passion, experience, and vision; the apprentice is ready to learn a craft that fits who she is. This special relationship is not only promising for the future of the craft, it is a lesson in being open to the moment.

Rindy O’Brien is a fellow artist, and can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com

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