Ariana Makau, founder of Nzilani Glass Conservation, a stained glass preservation company, in front of a recent restoration project at Resurrection Church Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Walking into the vaulted interior of Resurrection Church Oakland on the corner of Franklin and 17th Street, your eyes are immediately drawn to look upward. Roughly 25 feet off the ground, a glowing, 10-foot wide orb of jewel colors bulges towards you, almost as if you could reach up and touch its ethereal light. 

The inverted stained glass dome is meant to be the embodiment of spirit. But just two years ago, the 118-year-old structure was in no condition to inspire. Botched by improper repairs, it was in critical condition: damaged, unsafe, and unstable. 

In 2019, Resurrection Church Oakland, also called ResOak, bought the vacant 10,000 square foot church site that had been sitting vacant. Recognizing issues with the damaged stained glass fixture, church staff contacted Ariana Makau, a stained glass conservator based in Oakland. Makau and her interdisciplinary team started the complex work of preserving the century-old structure. 

“We were so overjoyed when we were contacted by ResOak, especially understanding the history of their building,” said Makau. “We had a passion about preserving it. There is such amazing historical architecture in Oakland.” 

Makau, who was the first woman and second person in the world in 1997 to receive a master’s degree in stained glass conservation from the Royal College of Art London, started her own company, Nzilani Glass Conservation, in 2003. Nzilani was the name of Makau’s grandmother from Kenya, as well as the name that Makau’s father gave her in a ceremonial naming when she received her master’s degree. 

Because her grandfather was a carpenter, Makau witnessed how to merge art and construction from an early age as she split her time between Oakland and Southern California. She dove into the world of stained glass when, as a mixed media major, she traveled to Paris her junior year at Scripps College to take classes at the Sorbonne. After getting a summer undergraduate internship at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in antiquities conservation in 1993 and completing her specialized master’s degree in London in 1997, she started working with clients across the West Coast. 

For Makau, preserving an architectural feature is more valuable than replacing it completely. The careful process she and her team undertake respects and honors past cultures, ownership, and heritage. 

Preservation rather than replacement is key to protecting local culture and history, especially in a city with a deep history like Oakland, says Daniel Levy, a board member for the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of Oakland’s cultural and architectural heritage. 

Preserved historic places “create a sense of place, not only through their beauty, but through their history, lore, and collective memories surrounding them. They ground us in our community,” he said. “Historic buildings also often cannot be built the same way today, so once we lose one, it is often gone forever.” 

Stained glass restoration work by Nzilani Glass Conservation at Resurrection Church Oakland in Downtown Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Before it was ResOak, retailer Jeremy’s bought the historic church to be converted into a women’s department store, though the plans never materialized due to permitting issues. Prior to that, it served as the First Church of Christ, Scientist for more than a century, opening in 1902. The original church featured multiple stained glass elements that pierced the walls and ceiling.

Stained glass has a rich cultural history dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries in Europe. Virginia Raguin, an emeritus professor of the humanities at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, says stained glass was a major art form in the Middle Ages. “Stained glass production is large, rich, and filled with complex as well as site-specific expressions,” said Raguin, who has written about the presence of stained glass in California history. 

Raguin describes the period of time between 1880 and 1920 as “the Opalescent Era,” in which stained glass production boomed in the United States, and particularly in the Bay Area. During this time, stained glass was inserted into domestic and commercial windows, leaded into lampshades, and made into windows or skylights for churches all throughout cities.

After a six-month project, the church’s stained glass dome has been restored 

The church that is now ResOak maintains many of its architectural features. The builders of the original building came from a mother church in Boston, and were sent west to begin a Christian Scientist church in California. The lot of land was purchased for $8,000 in the late 19th century. Architect and church member Henry A. Schulz designed the building in the Romanesque Revival style. The stained glass dome was designed by Charles Grolle in 1902 and constructed by the firm Flanagan and Biedenweg of Chicago. The cornerstone of the church was laid at the turn of the century in 1900. 

Cognizant of the history weighing on this particular preservation project, Makau worked with her team, which includes people trained in disciplines like carpentry, glassblowing, tile making, leatherwork, papermaking, and music, to use their diverse and creative problem-solving skills to tackle the challenging mission. 

In a talk for the Oakland Heritage Alliance, Makau explains how she and her team entered the attic of ResOak during their initial site visit, where the stained glass dome hung. They found evidence of rats and pigeons, water damage, and dust and debris. The 12-section dome had been incorrectly repaired in the past, threatening its structural stability. Armed with full personal protective equipment to prevent lead exposure, Makau hung from the ceiling to carefully remove the dome so she and her team could work on it on the ground. They completed the project in six months. The stained glass dome now stands intact and shining. 

Ariana Makau, founder of Nzilani Glass Conservation, inside Resurrection Oakland Church. Credit: Amir Aziz

Levy, of Oakland Heritage Alliance, hosted Makau’s talk and praised Makau’s work as showing “Oakland as a place where activities that are shaping historic preservation are occurring.” 

The historic preservation of stained glass is the community’s responsibility to posterity, said Raguin. “As we move through the 21st century, we are faced with choices of what to keep and what to discard, what to preserve, what to archive, and what to neglect,” she said. “The breadth of the leaded and painted window in architectural settings as we see in the Oakland and San Francisco area is a message about our diversity. We need such examples as we set about the daunting task of ensuring a past for our future.”

Makau founded her company 

Makau had lived in Emeryville, but moved to Oakland after her friend, artist Billy Greene, was senselessly murdered outside his Emeryville apartment. In 2003, she started Nzilani Glass Conservation and found a small studio space in Berkeley, eventually upgrading to a larger space in West Oakland. Securing what she calls a perfect space is “a testament to the landlord who has owned the spaces since the 70s. He’s a staunch supporter of the arts and arts-related businesses. The turnover for the spaces is 15 to 20 years,” she said. 

Nzilani has managed to stay in  the same building for decades, calling her spot in West Oakland “an artistic oasis.” 

“I’ve considered relocating to other places, but it’s hard to consider leaving Oakland and going to another location because Oakland is such a vibrant artistic city,” she said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between my landlord who appreciates and supports artists, and artists who are very passionate.” 

One of the challenges she faces is the undervaluing of the artistic work, with some clients questioning the expense of glass conservation work. The cost can be high given that stained glass preservationists are rigorously trained, use high-quality materials and safety procedures, and pour hours of labor into their unique art form. 

“People have the preconception about people in arts — that […] we are okay to suffer for our work or be starving artists,” she said. “But artists like to eat, pay rent, pay their mortgage, and contribute to their environment by reinvesting in their community as well.” 

Makau has finished many projects in San Francisco and the South Bay, but the ResOak church restoration was her first monumental project in her own city of Oakland. “It felt so good to be an Oakland company preserving Oakland history with a majority Oakland-based crew,” she said. 

However, underfunding is one of the reasons why more places in Oakland aren’t being preserved. 

“There is a phrase, ‘preservation through poverty,’ which means there are historically underserved communities within the city of Oakland who have amazing buildings, as well as the passion and drive to preserve, but the capital and interest are not there,” says Makau. “As much as I would love to preserve every building and church, I also have a small business to sustain. I would love to figure out some sort of alignment to serve those underserved communities more.” 

Giving back to her community, being a Black woman business owner and a role model, and cultivating the love of historic preservation in young kids are part of Makau’s bigger mission. 

“If you reach them early, kids know that it’s okay for a Black woman to have her own business,” said Makau. “I hope my legacy is to leave people appreciating stained glass—to not have to replace something broken, but to preserve it.”