A Passion for Art

Published in "Stained Glass Quarterly " magazine

Stained and etched glass fills the windows of Conrad Schmitt Studios’ modern, two-story facility in New Berlin, Wisconsin. In the few places were art glass windows are not installed, collages of colored glass tint incoming light in mystical hues. The painted light reflects the presence of Bernard O. Gruenke, Sr., 90, whose enchantment with art glass has spanned more than six decades. He still looks at the world through rose-colored glass, and one of his gifts is his ability to share his inspiring visions with others.

It has been sixty-seven years since Bernard O. Gruenke joined Conrad Schmitt Studios, and fifty years since he took ownership of it. He chose to retain the name of the founder, Conrad Schmitt, which was well-established and respected in the industry. Today, three generations of the Gruenke family direct Conrad Schmitt Studios, and the name Conrad Schmitt notwithstanding, it is the creative energy of the Gruenke spirit that permeates the Studio.

National art studios are a unique breed to begin with, and even among them Conrad Schmitt Studios is unusual because of its breadth of offerings. Founded in 1889 with a focus on interior decoration and painting, the Studios expanded to include stained glass in the early 1900s. Because decorative painting, stained glass and artwork should harmonize visually, this was a logical choice. At the time, a few other studios, including the renowned Tiffany Studios of New York, also encompassed both.  But as the age of specialization dawned, many studios limited their scope. Conrad Schmitt Studios, on the other hand, still provides decorative painting, stained glass, murals, mosaics, sculpture and statuary. With 80 artists and staff conducting a multitude of projects each year, Conrad Schmitt Studios is one of the largest art studios in the country. This success and longevity can be attributed to many things, not least among them the character of its leaders.

The Early Years
The founder of the Studios, Conrad Schmitt, was an artist and art enthusiast, a business person and a spiritual man. He believed in his vocation and overcame resistance, including lack of parental support, to apprentice with church decorators as a young man of 14. He attended business school at this parents’ insistence while also working as a decorator, first as an employee, then in partnership with others. In 1889, at the age of 22, he established Conrad Schmitt Studios.  Through wars, glass tariffs and the Depression, he navigated his Studios through many rough waters.

While Conrad Schmitt Studios was providing stained glass and decorative painting for churches, banks and public buildings around the country in the early 1930s, Bernard Gruenke was a young man nurturing a plan to become an artist. Like the elder Schmitts, Bernard O. Gruenke’s German-immigrant parents resisted his desire to pursue art as a career. 

“My father and mother,” says Bernard, “didn’t respect the art field. A ditch-digger or plumber or a carpenter, they’d honor that.  Artists would starve in the attic.”  So he worked in an art-related field, painting billboards and movie posters for Norman Theix’s Design Studio in his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. And he saved his money. 

Bernard took some classes at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and in 1934 announced to his parent that he was planning to attend Corcoran Art School in Washington D.C. to study portrait painting. He had visited the school five years earlier on a scholarship from a local benefactor, Miss Marie Kohler of the Kohler bath fixture company. His parents agreed to let him go, but without any financial support. 

After a time at Corcoran, Bernard went to Philadelphia and took classes with Caesar Riccardi, a former student of the artist and teacher Robert Henri. Henri was an early proponent of breaking the bonds of European art and the author of The Art Spirit. 

While in the city, Bernard also visited Philadelphia’s first stained glass workshop, Nicola D’Ascenzo Studios, which provided stained glass in many prominent east coast locations, including the Folger Shakespear Library and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

“This is where I experienced my first impression of stained glass as an art form, with color not only being reflected from the surface but being penetrated by the light. It created an impact that remained with me thought my life,” Bernard says.

He was ready to return to his home state and the young woman waiting for him there, so he headed for the logical place to seek work. “With thoughts of creating visual expression in glass lingering in my mind, I went to the Conrad Schmitt Studios and literally sat on their doorstep.

Conrad's sons, Rupert, Alphonse, and Edward, joined the family business beginning about 1912. In 1929, Conrad Schmitt Studios opened an office in New York City, which Edward operated for several years. He returned when Alphonse left the company to start his own design firm in 1933. When Bernard Gruenke first made his way to the Studios to seek work on October 28, 1936, it was the height of the Depression. Conrad Schmitt Studios was getting by, but not without difficulty.

Bernard was granted a meeting with them, but he was told, “We can get the Italian and the German professors a dime a dozen; why should we hire the American boys who know nothing?”

At 6:00 AM the next morning, the young man was waiting on the doorstep. When Rupert Schmitt arrived, he bawled Bernard out for not listening to his rejection the day before.

“Mr. Schmitt,” Bernard replied, “whether you like it or not, I’ve made up my mind. This is my home. Whether you pay me or not, I’m going to work here.” He had said the right thing and was pleased to be hired for $7 per week. 

The Young Artist
Bernard’s first weeks at Conrad Schmitt Studios were filled with menial work like scrubbing floors, washing cars and moving wine casks  for Mrs. Schmitt. He recalled his early glass experiences for a 1978 article in the Stained Glass Quarterly. It was probably typical in many ways, but as with most things, he devised his own approach to some aspects of the work:

My early work in the Studio consisted of learning the craft of stained glass, as do our present day apprentices. I cemented, fired the kiln, cut glass, traced and painted, glazed and learned to build scaffolding for both glass installations and our interior decoration.

I spent countless hours at the studio stick-lining borders on stained glass windows. (These consisted of thousands of strips of glass, matted with paint, out of which a squiggly line of clear glass was drawn with a pointed stick.) This series of repeated accents resulted in a stereotyped monotony, which I relieved by writing love letters to my wife on the borders. These letters after being sealed with lead were unreadable, but they provided an interesting, diverse series of linear forms. 

At the Studio, Bernard began to work closely with Conrad Pickel, who was  a native of Munich and had been trained there at the Art Academy and at the Mayer of Munich Studio. Pickel worked as a designer of stained glass and murals, and he and Bernard worked and traveled together.

In 1940, Bernard was installing newly created stained glass windows at the Des Moines Cathedral, along with Conrad Pickel, Al Timler and Bob Halbrook. They soon discovered that what was conveyed in one of the designs was not necessarily what had been intended.

The windows had been designed by Conrad Pickel, and one window depicted St. Paul being stricken from his horse. The young Bernard idolized the older Pickel and his work. “I honored the window,” he says, “because I thought Connie Pickel was the greatest artist in the world.” 

One of the other men from the Studio came in, and upon seeing the St. Paul window said, “Look, Ma no hands!”  He’s riding without hands.” Bernard thought, “That silly Hilary, what’s the matter with him?”  Then Bishop Bergen and Monsignor Lyons came down the aisle to view the new windows. And when they saw St. Paul, Monsignor Lyons said, “Look, Ma, no hands!”

Bernard married his hometown sweetheart, Mary Anne Sprangers, in 1937. Within a week of their marriage, they were on the road to Owatanna, Minnesota, along with Conrad Pickel, Mary Anne continued to travel with Bernard after Bernie Jr. was born in 1938, but she traveled less after the subsequent births of their daughters, Anne and Janie.

When Bernie was just a few weeks old, the Gruenkes and Pickels – Conrad and Joan – went to Texas for projects in Fort Worth and at the El Paso Cathedral.  Bernard recalls that it was a stressful lifestyle, living in hotels with a baby.  When baby Bernie cried at night, people pounded on the walls.

The journey back to Milwaukee from Texas was not an easy one, either. As the Gruenkes and the Pickels traveled on a mountain road in the south, they noticed that one of the tires had a bulge in it. They stopped to have a serviceman look at it.  He adjusted it, and then assured them that it would be fine. But a few miles later, the tire blew out, causing the car to go out of control.  It veered off the road and rolled over into a ditch, totaled.  Fortunately, the occupants of the car suffered no major injuries. 

Conrad Schmitt died in 1940, and Rupert and Edward Schmitt worked to keep the Studio lucrative. When the most successful of their young artists/salesmen, Bernard O. Gruenke, ventured out on his own in 1948 to make a better living for his family, much of the work and many of the workers followed him. They shared a space and a secretary with Conrad Pickel, who had opened his own studio as well, in Waukesha, Wisconsin. But in 1950, Rupert Schmitt, the Studio President, asked Bernard to return to Conrad Schmitt Studios as a partner.  He did so because he cared for the tradition of Conrad Schmitt Studios. In 1953, when Rupert died, the Schmitt family sold their remaining interest to Bernard O. Gruenke.

Bernard possessed the same important qualities that Conrad Schmitt had: a consummate artist, an art collector, a businessman and a deeply spiritual man. Nearly seven decades after he began at Conrad Schmitt Studios, every subject still receives his diligent study and individual attention. It is also likely to receive his re-interpretation or inventive approach, because the modern spirit of innovation is deeply rooted in his character. 

The Introduction of Faceted Glass
In 1949, Bernard O. Gruenke made his first trip to Europe, and there his affinity for modernism bloomed. The journey was one of dozens to come, including one flight to Paris in the late 1950s that ended in a belly landing in Tours, France. While visiting Europe, Bernard made a point of seeing both the great artwork of the past as well as the newer, modernist designs. Both made a strong and lasting impression on him. He esteemed the 1500-year old mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, which he believes inspired the impressionists and pointillists. At the same time, he greatly admired the architecture and artwork, by the Germans in particular, that had moved away from traditional forms into modern design. 

He recalls, “I think when the Germans created abstract art, they also expressed a thought or the essence of a prayer or a theme.” 

While traveling in Germany and Italy, Bernard was introduced to influential artists, including Anton Wendling, who created the windows for the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, and the mosaicist, Peter Recker. 

In Paris, the course of his glass career was forever changed when he came upon the Cheret stained glass studio in Montmartre. The artists there were experimenting with a new type of block, colored glass. When he saw it, Bernard recognized it as the jewel-like glass he had admired a decade earlier at the St. Anne de Beaupre shrine in Montreal. He purchased a box of dalle de verre glass from the Cheret studio, which he brought back home with him to Milwaukee. 

Bernard first experimented with the glass at his home, cutting and chopping it to shape. Initially, he cast it in cement, later testing a variety of adhesives and aggregates and exploring internal reinforcement along with Bernie, Jr. Bernard produced what was probably the first slab glass window in the U.S. in his garage in 1949, Christ on the Rainbow.  Bernie, Jr., who was ten at the time, remembers helping chop dalles, including by dropping them on the concrete floor, and setting his marbles as the stars in the sky. 

In the brief biography in The Stained Glass Quarterly, Bernard reflected on the excitement of the new medium: How vividly I recall bringing the first dalles of faceted glass from France to America. Faceted glass was nonexistent in this country, and I could feel its potential. On my garage floor, I struggled to master a way to cut it.  I encouraged Bill Blenko, Sr., to produce dalles at his plant in Milton, West Virginia. He had reservations but finally agreed, and now many thousands of square feet of faceted glass have been produced for studios all over the United States.

Bernard introduced the glass form to many areas of the country. Dalle de verre artwork complemented the modern-style architecture that was proliferating in post-war America. Bernard’s original panels toured the country, demonstrating this new type of window that could be created.

Modern Projects of the 1950s and 1960s
It was during the 1950s that Bernard O. Gruenke’s son, Bernard E. Gruenke, began his four-and-a-half year Stained Glass Association of America apprenticeship at Conrad Schmitt Studios, following his studies in business at Marquette University. While a student, he also studied cloisonné, metal smithing and ceramics.  When he finished his glass work, he was awarded the grand prize in the SGAA apprenticeship competition in 1960.

Bernard and Bernie, Jr. enjoyed experimenting together with glass at the Studios. They created unusual combinations, such as metal sculpture incorporated into stained glass. They also worked extensively to discover the best materials for faceted glass, and tried new combinations, such as stone mixed with aggregate.

With Peter Recker, a German artist Bernard had persuaded to come to the U.S., he designed the 25-foot stained glass window for St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church in Franklin Park, Illinois. The St. Gertrude’s window was remarkable for both its size and the portrayal of its theme, Judgment Day, which Bernard had conceived. It depicted an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, which was highly relevant in 1953, as the apocalypse.

Bernard first met Peter Recker while the latter was restoring mosaics at the Vatican, in Rome.  But it was his new mosaics installed at the Collegia Germanica, also in Rome, that greatly impressed Bernard and inspired him to seek mosaic commissions for Conrad Schmitt Studios. First with Peter Recker in the fifties and then with Felix Senger, another German artist, in the sixties, Bernard designed dozens of mosaics for churches, often as the reredos which serves as the backdrop for the liturgy. 

At St. Mary’s Greek Ruthenian Church in New York City, the mosaic created by Bernard and Felix Senger was a large, façade artwork mounted above the entrance of the 1963 church with the theme, Mary, Our Protectress. Bernard had also been asked to create stained glass windows for the newly built church.  Instead, he persuaded them that jewel-like, dalle de verre walls of glass would be a more inspired choice.

“Sometimes,” he told the pastor, “I think we don’t need stained glass alone within a structure. We also need the radiance of light from within to shine on the outside.  What if we bring more people into that church because they see a little radiance shining forth? With our faceted glass, I know e could do a jewel there and make it a jewel box.”  He received approval, and the result was indeed a jeweled house of worship that beckons people to come within.

A Crystalline Etched Glass
In the 1970s, Bernard O. Gruenke set a new challenge for himself and his son, Bernard E. Gruenke, Jr. At the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan in 1969, Bernard, Sr. had seen a Czechoslovakian etched glass exhibit that had captivated him.  He and Bernie, Jr. experimented with various methods of glass etching in an effort to create a deeply etched, crystalline glass resembling what he had seen. When they finally managed it, they called it “Leptat,” which is derived from the Czech word meaning “to etch,” in honor of its inspiration. The etching technique was later patented and is the Studios’ unique product.

Leptat glass became a popular choice for partition doors and was included in one of Bernard’s favorite stained glass projects, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. The 1961 church is famous for its unique Frank Lloyd Wright design. Conrad Schmitt Studios’ most significant glass contribution was the creation of iconic stained glass for the arched windows that encircle the cylindrical building with a broad dome.

Wright had originally designed simple, geometric stained glass for the arched windows, but when the church was able to afford art glass windows in the late 1970s, they contacted Conrad Schmitt Studios. Instead of executing the Wright designs, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church wanted the Studio to provide artwork that would express their long-lived artistic traditions. They did not feel that the church building reflected the Orthodox tradition.

“…Many of the Greek people I spoke to seemed to hate the church, but it was not because of the architecture,” Bernard says. “The church didn’t contain enough of their own meaning. They wanted to incorporate more of the Greek iconography.” The church wished to have Byzantine-style windows in keeping with the artistic and iconographic traditions of their faith.  The etched door panels, which are an interior installation, depict figures in a traditional Orthodox style, but the use of clear glass prevents them from competing with the other interior artwork. 

For the overall project, Bernard and artist Helen Hickman made a thorough study of Greek Orthodox iconography. Bernard said, “I want this to be the first church where everyone is encompassed in the iconostasis, the icons.” 

To accomplish this, the arched stained glass windows that encircle the low, cylindrical building recall icons and other Byzantine artwork. The stained glass is gilded on the exterior lead-lines, which allows it to read from the exterior during the daytime and which captures a little of the spirit of gold leaf favored in the Byzantine style.

Decorative Painting and Conservation
In addition to their art glass endeavors and often in conjunction with them, Bernard and Bernie, Jr. were also continually directing, designing and executing decorative painting projects. This had been the Studios’ primary service from the beginning, and it continues to be an important facet of the business.

A number of significant historic projects during the 1970s and 1980s earned Conrad Schmitt Studios a reputation as a premier provider of restoration and conservation services. The Studios’ restoration work includes the realm of decorative painting and murals as well as stained glass. This evolved into Bernie, Jr.’s specialty, but Bernard has been involved in many of the restoration projects, often as the art and color specialist.

For continuing education in the evolving fields of conservation and restoration, Bernard E. Gruenke traveled in the U.S., Polynesia, France, Germany, Italy and Austria in the 1980s and 1990s, studying conservation methods used by museums and conservators. Conrad Schmitt Studios landed its largest project at the time in 1984, which was the restoration of the decorative painting at Union Station in St. Louis, along with the conservation of the large, Tiffany style glass window above the main staircase there. 

Union Station had been built in 1894 and had been America’s rail crossroads during the time that trains dominated public transportation.  In its heyday during World War II, 100,000 passengers aboard 200 trains passed through St. Louis’s Union Station each day. 

The last train left the station in 1978, and the adaptive re-use plan to revive it with retain and hotel space was hatched in 1983. The other option being considered for the dilapidated, rodent-infested building was demolition. Every aspect of restoring St. Louis Union Station’s interior was a challenge, from recreating stencil work based on historic photographs, to removing the large, heavily plated stained glass window panels. 

The four-layer allegorical window on the grand staircase is of unknown origin, though there is speculation that it may be an unsigned work of Tiffany. It is an opalescent window in Tiffany’s style, executed with beautiful Tiffany glass. The triptych depicts three women representing the primary train stations of the U.S.: San Francisco, New York and St. Louis, where all the trains meet.

The neglected, opalescent window was very poor conditions before conservation, according to Bernie, Jr.: “It would not have lasted much longer. The panels were warped, and all three layers were separating.” 

The window was thoroughly documented in place, and then each 800-lb. panel was carefully lifted out with a crane to minimize the risk of damage. The panels were then crated and trucked to the Studios in New Berlin. There, further documentation was conducted before they were dismantled.  The historic glass, painted and unpainted, was conserved. The decayed leading was replaced, as were the reinforcing bars that were almost rusted through. 

The restoration of union Station was completed in 1985 and was widely publicized. It was the largest adaptive re-use project in the country at the time. 

The 1980s also marked a decade of family expansion for the Studio with Bernie, Sr.’s grandchildren, Gunar and Heidi (the son and daughter of Bernie, Jr. and his wife, Diane) joining Conrad Schmitt Studios. Like their father, they were raised in and around the Studio, and stained glass, decorative painting and restoration are in their blood.  Heidi and Gunar both studied business as well as art to better manage the growing Studios, and they continue the tradition of Conrad Schmitt Studios and the Stained Glass Association of America. Gunar Gruenke is currently a member of the SGAA Board.  Their young children, the fourth generation, visit the Studio often.

Much of the Conrad Schmitt Studios’ work today consists of restoration and conservation, often with stained glass and decorating in tandem, as it so often was in the past. In 2002, the restoration of the fire damaged Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Indianapolis included the replication of four Mayer of Munich stained glass windows, eleven murals and the interior decoration of the 1891 church.  Interestingly, the 1936 decorative scheme that was restored had originally been applied by Alphonse Schmitt, the son of Conrad Schmitt, who had ventured out on his own. 

Champion of the Arts
Bernard O. Gruenke’s passionate work to create and advance art glass has been recognized by the Stained Glass Association of America over the years.  A member since 1936, he served as Vice President of the SGAA and was named a Fellow in 1972.  In 1996, Bernard O. Gruenke was honored with the SGAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1980, an honorary degree was conferred upon Bernard by Mount Mary College in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin: Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.  His passion for the arts has ranged beyond art glass, through a variety of media, and has extended to music and the performing arts as well.  Bernard has collected artwork throughout his life, and he has a wonderful assemblage of religious paintings, stained glass, prints and statuary, much of which resides in the office he still retains at Conrad Schmitt Studios.    

For continuing education groups and prospective clients who tour the Studios, visiting Bernard Gruenke in his office is a highlight of their experience.  Surrounded by artwork spanning several centuries, they listen to words of wisdom from “Senior” or the “White Tornado,” tow fond nicknames that distinguish him from his son, Bernie, Jr. and reflect his qualities of knowledge and experience, along with his mane of white hair and his boundless enthusiasm. 

After a warm welcome, visitors are often engaged on the subject of art. “You know, Michelangelo made a mistake in the Sistine Chapel,” Bernard says, enjoying the indignant looks from those gathered around his large, polished wood desk. He is grinning broadly.

“That’s right, he painted a navel on Adam.” There is a pause while this sinks in. “But Adam was created, not born!” They all share a laugh.

Then Senior goes on to speak of art projects, architecture, the past and the church. He is animated and sincere about these messages, which he tells through anecdotes. What people absorb is that art matters very much; that art touches the soul; and that art is essential to the human spirit.

As he finishes, Bernard looks kindly at each person. “Thank you for caring for the arts,” he says. “Thank you,” he nods to one. “Thank you,” to another.  “Never change…”

One day, a woman leaves wiping her eyes. “If only there were more people like him in the world,” she says.

“As art is one of the noblest human pursuits,” Bernard said, “the artist’s work becomes a representation of his time: his buildings, statues and paintings are an indication of how a sensitive society thinks, dreams and communicates. These products of the human mind and hand are part of our regional and national heritage and they should be preserved for future generations.”


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