Bringing Back the Grandeur

By Paul G. Hayes
Published in "Wisconsin", the Milwaukee Journal Magazine

The farther society advances into a high-technology future, the more it seems to need the architectural and decorative glories of its past.

But many of those glories became tarnished over the years: Elegant Art Deco hotels faded; movie theatres decorated in the manner of ancient Egypt were renovated into something ugly, perhaps painted a 1950s lime green; and a grain-trading room in Milwaukee that was built in 1880 went to seed. 

Time to refurbish these architectural gems grew short and those who knew the ancient arts were vanishing from the commercial scene nationally. 

In Milwaukee, this problem worked to the advantage of a low-technology firm that, for a century, had nurtured the ancient decorative arts in the ancient ways.

When the trend to restore rather than destroy grand old buildings became a national crusade in the 1980s, the Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin was more than ready.

In addition to designing and making stained-glass windows, the Schmitt Studios artisans could paint murals, apply gold leaf, set mosaic tiles, etch glass, carve wood and sculpt in metal.

While the soldering iron that secures the lead joints holding stained glass panels together may be heated electrically today instead of over a bed of glowing charcoal, the soldering technique itself is little changed from that used in 14th century Europe.  The artisans and their predecessors have been working at such arts since the studio was founded in 1889. 

“In 1989, we celebrated our 100th anniversary, and we’re doing exactly what we did 100 years ago,” said Bernard E. Gruenke, president of the firm.  “At the same time, we are always exploring new media.”

The 1980s turned out to be the best decade so far for the stained glass mosaic, mural, wood carving, glass etching, architectural-restoration business.  As the 1990s begin, the studio is busier than ever. 

Before the restoration boom, Midwestern piety kept the studio flourishing during most of the century, while much of its competition throughout the nation shrank or went under.  The demand for ecclesiastical art, including stained glass, mosaics, icons, the Stations of the Cross and metal work, was stable.  Places of worship, old and new, Christian and Jewish, still are a major source of business for the studio.

“In the beginning, we did mostly churches.  Then, in the 1970s, we did the Pabst Theatre redecorating in Milwaukee, and then other theatres,” said John Jaeger, studio production manager. 

“Restoration work grew after federal funds were made available and historical societies developed an interest in protecting landmarks.  We happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Jaeger.

“Plus we’re good at what we do.” Jaeger manages deadlines, artists’ assignments, work schedules and supplies.  As he talked with an interviewer, he was calculating how to divide scaffolding between two jobs that were to start in January: the renovation of Immaculate Conception in Bay View and St. Robert Roman Catholic Church in Shorewood.

Sections of scaffolding were being brought back to Milwaukee from a three-year renovation at Sacred Heart Church at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

A list of projects the Conrad Schmitt Studios worked on during the 1980s includes restoration of the Grain Exchange Room in Milwaukee’s Mackie Building, Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel, Union Station in St. Louis, the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, the Assembly chambers of the Wisconsin State Capitol, Milwaukee’s Pabst Mansion, Wisconsin Electric Co.’s corporate offices, some grand old courthouses and more than 100 churches from New York to California and from Minnesota to Texas.

The work is labor-intensive and requires special skill.  The studio’s involvement in Union Station in St. Louis, in which a neglected train station was restored both as a mall and a hotel, included researching and restoring stained glass plus painting and decorating the interior.

“Our portion of the contract was $1.3 million and took approximately 1 ½ years to complete,” said Gianfranco Tassara, controller of the studio.  “The overall project was the largest restoration ever undertaken in the United States, for a total of $153 million.”

While the firm works anywhere in the US and Canada, “the Greater Milwaukee area has always been our home,” said Gruenke.

“Milwaukee has always been known for its artists and craftsmen.  The craftsmen in our area of the country take great pride in the execution of their work.  I feel this is not the case in other areas, especially on the East and West Coasts,” he says.

While the studio nurtures old arts, it is hardly a Bohemian loft in an artsy part of town.  Since the early 1970s, the company’s artists have plied venerable skills in a modern, well-lighted building at 2405 S. 162nd St. in New Berlin’s industrial park.  The studio flourishes by merging the goals of business with the creativity of individuals, and it brings modern marketing techniques to ancient crafts. 

“Even though the studio is run like a business, and it is run strictly as a business, we still remind ourselves over and over again that our product is art, that it is the quality of our art that has kept us in business,” said Gruenke.  “That’s stressed at every meeting.”

The business remains a family business, although the owners are not the founding family.  Bernard E. Gruenke’s father, Bernard O. Gruenke, who joined the firm in 1937, was hired in person by the founder, Conrad Schmitt. 

We need now to confront a complexity.  Although the elder and younger Gruenkes have different middle initials, the elder Gruenke, who is 77, is known around the studio as “Senior”; his son, who is 51, as Bernie, Bernie Gruenke’s children are also in the firm.  Heidi Gruenke, 24, came on full time after she graduated with a degree in marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in May 1988.  When he graduates from UW-Whitewater in 1991, Heidi’s brother, also named Bernard, will join the firm full time.  Happily, Bernard G. Gruenke, 21, is known by his middle name, Gunar.

The founder, the late Conrad Schmitt, was born in Fussville, a vanished settlement near Menomonee Falls, and was trained in art.  In early directories of the city of Milwaukee, Schmitt was listed simply as “painter.”  After the turn of the century, he was listed as “church decorator.”  He had gone to Europe and recruited artists for his emerging business.  By the 1930s, he was listed as Conrad Schmitt Studio, at 1717 W. Wisconsin Av., and his two sons were entering the firm. 

Bernard Senior likes to tell the story of his hiring.  A Sheboygan native, he attended the old Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and studied at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then under Cesear Riccardi, a portrait painter, in Pennsylvania. 

But his future wife was waiting for him back in the Middle West, so he returned to Wisconsin in 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression.  Presenting himself at the Conrad Schmitt Studios, he was told that there were no openings, and that he should return in three or four months.  Even if Schmitt didn’t realize it, Gruenke knew he had found his place of employment.  He found ecclesiastical art attractive because it had longevity.  Undaunted by rejection, Senior volunteered to work without pay.  Schmitt relented and hired him for $7 a week. 

When Schmitt died in 1940, his sons took over the company.  Senior took over upon the death in 1953 of Rupert Schmitt, the last of the founder’s sons to operate the company.  By that time, the firm had been moved to 1325 S. 43rd St., West Milwaukee.  In the 1970s, the studio moved to New Berlin. 

Bernie meantime was learning the business from the ground up, starting as a child pushing a broom through the studios, then working into all phases of the business, including artwork, sales and management.  Heidi and Gunar began as their father did, by doing chores in the studio as children, even cleaning toilets, Heidi said.  Today she spends much of her time in sales.

But that doesn’t exclude her from climbing scaffolds to the ceilings of churches or old railroad depots to select colors or take tracings.  Her first scaffold was 65 feet high inside Sacred Heart Church at the University of Notre Dame, her father said.

“The first couple of days on a scaffold you are very cautious,” said Bernie.  Then it gets to be second nature.

Gunar works in the studio in summers and he commutes from Whitewater to attend board meetings to serve as a non-voting adviser, as does Heidi.

Senior, now chairman of the board, is known by yet another nickname, “the White Tornado,” for the color of his hair and the force of his creative energy. 

“Put a pencil in his hand and he’s quick and unbelievably creative,” said Bernie.  Added Heidi: “He draws on tablecloths, anything.  His color sense is acute.  I can’t keep up with him.”

“No one can,” says Bernie. 

The White Tornado’s office dazzles with color and art of diverse age and style.  Flemish paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries are on the walls; crucifixes and religious figures in wood, metal and porcelain are scattered around the room; irregular sheets of colored glass and large, modern glass vases placed in windows glow with sunlight.  On the wall opposite Senior’s desk is a musical score on sheepskin from the 14th-century Spain, its notes painted large so that its devotionals could be read at the distance by singing worshipers standing along the walls of a chapel.  Behind his desk on a credenza, a half-dozen tumblers are filled with sharpened colored pencils, within quick reach to sketch out an inspiration.

In 1969, the Conrad Schmitt Studios company, already one of the big studios in the US wherein the venerable decorative arts were practiced, employed about 20 people.  In 1989, it employed 58, said Bernie.  At its last board meeting in 1989, on Dec. 28, the firm decided to hire two more artisans early in 1990.  But such decisions are taken with caution, he said.  The pendulum of public taste can swing unpredictably; the company has seen many competitors decline and fail.

For instance, the firm now is restoring the Tiffany windows from the main house at the famous King Ranch in Texas.  In its heyday 90 years ago, the famous Tiffany studio in New York was a major competitor of Schmitt’s, but then Tiffany’s started specializing in jewelry.  Decades ago, it closed out its stained-glass work altogether.  The signed Tiffany windows from the ranch’s “Big House,” built in 1908 to resemble Moorish architecture, have been removed, shipped to Milwaukee and dismantled.  They will be cleaned, piece by piece, reassembled with new lead, and reinstalled.

The entire studio reflects its functions.  The building’s front façade is adorned by an 80-foot-long abstract mosaic affixed with a sweeping brass sculpture.  The entrance is a construction of etched-glass panels in the Leptat manner, an acid process patented in the US by Bernie.  Affixed to the door leading to the studio and to occasional walls are replicas of panels of sculpted bronze, Italian renaissance church doors. 

In one work area Gil Treis, a Schmitt studio veteran of 12 years, fits new lead around the cleaned panes of one of the 1,200 stained-glass panels removed from Sacred Heart Church at the University of Notre Dame.

Schmitt is starting its last year of this three-year project and Treis figures he along already has spent 2,000 hours on it.  Each glass fragment had been hand-cleaned earlier in a non-acidic solution.  Now he is trying to reassemble the window in the exact configuration crafted by Carmelite nuns of France, who made the windows in the 1870s. 

“You’re guessing how they did it more than 100 years ago,” Treis said, pondering a problem.  “If you do it wrong, the final panel ends up with holes, or the glass fits loosely.  For instance, the problem here is whether one or two leads come together.  If it’s one, the window will be too narrow.”

And so he fits two lead borders, rather than one, at a crucial place between two panes.  They fit perfectly. 

As he works, Treis points out the subtle techniques of the Carmelite nuns.  For instance, the lead border around a male face is wide and gives the face a bold appearance.  But the lead around an angel’s face is thinner, imparting a lacier, ethereal effect. 

Jack Schwartz, who has been with Schmitt studios for 38 years, is glazing one of two rose windows to be installed in a new non-denominational stone chapel being built at Boys’ Town, Neb. 

Nearby, Mike Lavin is soldering the joints in the lead borders of one of the petals in the chapel’s rose window.

“The danger with soldering is that the iron will get too hot and the lead will liquefy,” said Lavin.  “There is a critical temperature for bonding the solder to the lead.” 

Jeff Lorenzen, who has been with the Schmitt studio a year, is using a wooden tool he calls a “leadigen” that might be from the 15th century.  It is an ash hammer handle with an end carved into a rounded wedge.  Lorenzen uses the wedge to spread the flanges on the lead strips before he fits the lead around the glass fragments. 

Lorenzen, too, is working on the Boys’ Town rose windows, each to be 16 feet in diameter, each with 16 elaborate petals radiating from a center. 

In a corner room upstairs, Lynn Wilson works on plastic model of the Harley-Davidson Inc. emblem, a bald eagle, its wings spread.  A studio employee will show the model to Harley officials, who want the emblem etched into double doors at the Milwaukee motorcycle manufacturer’s corporate headquarters, 3370 W. Juneau Ave.

“I’ll design it, transfer it to the glass, and do the etching.  It will be 30 inches by 40 inches in a double door,” said Wilson, who joined the studio in 1977, after attending Layton School of Art and Cardinal Stritch College.  “Right now, I’m having a great time,” she said.  “I have more work than I can handle.  When I’m done with this, I’ll go to work on Boys’ Town, doing the matting of the glass.” 

Matting, she explains, is the process in which individual pieces of colored glass are painted with images or designs, then fired in a kiln so that the paint becomes fused with the glass, making the painted image permanent.

Luis Mendizabal is in his office finishing a small perspective in color of the way that the Church of the Sacred Heart in Winnetka, Ill., might look when its restoration is completed. 

Mendizabal, a native of Peru, has been on the Schmitt staff since 1982.  He is a perspective artist and illustrator as well as a restorer of murals.  The perspective will give the church officials an idea of the appearance of their church once the Schmitt artisans are finished. 

The crusade to restore early art and architecture has advanced so far that it is graced with a code of ethics that guides the Conrad Schmitt Studios. 

“The preservationist must become a slave to the original artist,” states the studio’s manual on the preservation, conservation and restoration of murals.  “He cannot improve a brush stroke, he cannot add coloring or cannot add his own techniques even though he may be able to execute them better than the original artist. 

“Even though certain murals do not represent the fines examples of art of that era, they have great historical value.  No attempt should be made to try to improve the mural,” the manual states.  In that regard, Schmitt artists are obliged to save every vestige of the original paint, repainting only in holes, cracks or chips where all original paint is missing.

“Too little perfection is preferable to overdone restoration,” the manual admonishes.  Some restoration techniques that were thought to be sound 10 years ago have turned out to be disastrous.  Therefore, the studio takes a cautious approach.  It documents the condition of everything, the paint, old plans and tracings, the glass, the origins of all of these.  It takes rubbings and photographs, and undertakes microscopic analysis.   

It tries to match the original techniques, even down to soldering joints in leaded glass. 

Furthermore, restorers want their changes to be reversible.  In stained glass, for instance, a craftsmen might return a faded section to its former intensity by painting a clear piece of glass and sandwiching it behind the original, and thus avoid painting the now-faded, century-old glass.  Cracked glass may be repaired with epoxy and later can be removed. 

Artist Lynn Wilson said that sometimes documentation was difficult.  In restoring a room in the Pabst Mansion, she had to work from a black and white photo from the 1890s.  By luck workers found scraps of original wallpaper hidden behind mirrors.  The room once had dazzled the eye with fully 15 colors but since had been painted throughout in lime green. 

Recent visitors to downtown Milwaukee’s Old Federal Building at 517 E. Wisconsin Ave. may have noticed where Schmitt artisans have carefully removed many layers of drab paint applied to the interior since the place was built 90 years ago.  Uncovered for the first time in the memory of living Milwaukeeans are small areas that reveal graceful hand-painted designs, the original décor of the building.

The studio has been in business long enough that it has begun to revisit its own earlier projects.  For example, Conrad Schmitt Studios helped decorate the interior of the Wisconsin State Capitol when it was built in 1909.  Eighty year later, the studio restored the Assembly chambers.

And, in 1926, the studio remodeled the interior of Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre, converting the Victorian to Art Deco.  In the 1970s, the same studio restored the Pabst to its original 1890s Victorian splendor.

Bernie Gruenke said that, though sometimes painful, it paid for the studio to be honest. 

“If a person doesn’t have something, don’t say they do,” he advised, recalling the time when, after touring a church, he was asked, “What’s the best thing we can do with this church?” 

“Burn it,” he replied.

In a second instance, he said, the studio was competing with another company for remodeling of the interior of a monastery in the Midwest, and Bernie recognized some wall paintings as Beuronese, characteristic of a charming style first used in the Abbey Beuron in West Germany.  Aware that he was risking the contract by recommending against painting over the murals, he wrote a letter arguing for the preservation of the paintings. 

“I believe we were instrumental in saving the art,” he said.

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