Restoring the Past - Conrad Schmitt Studios founded in 1889

By Steven Snyder
Published in The Waukesha Freeman


New Berlin- Spend a day speaking with those who work at Conrad Schmitt Studios and you'll be taken on a sprawling, eye-opening journey through art history, architecture and the various methods of historical preservation.

Since 1889, the company has espoused its expertise in both restoration and conservation, as well as the creation of new designs for both interiors and exteriors- enhancing or reviving towering works of art.

"We're always thinking big," said Conrad Schmitt Studios Vice President Heidi Gruenke Emery. "We restore churches and theaters and other buildings of historic significance, and our business has always been involved in art and stained-glass work as well. We have decorators all over the country who help transform our plans into reality."

Flip through the company's portfolio, and the landmarks seem endless. Conrad Schmitt restored the interior of Milwaukee's Basilica of St. Josaphat. The firm worked closely with the stained glass of Indianapolis' Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ. It was Conrad Schmitt employees who descended on the Pabst Theatre, the Pfister Hotel and Brookfield's St. Dominic church.

They even worked closely with the Milwaukee County Historical Society in restoring locations for the recent Hollywood blockbuster "Public Enemies," a period piece filmed right here in Wisconsin.

The company was founded in 1889 by artist Conrad Schmitt, and it was then sold in 1951 to Emery's grandfather, Bernard O. Gruenke, a long-time employee who had traveled on the road with the company, working his way up the ranks. The business then passed down to Gruenke's son, Bernard E. Gruenke, in the latter half of the 21st century, as the father and son worked together in building the brand across the country.

Today, a brother and sister continue to steer the ship that their grandfather helped to build. President B. Gunar Gruenke and Vice President Heidi Gruenke Emery now oversee a team of artist and artisans who have made preservation their No. 1 priority.

"Under Vatican II, as the focus shifted to the specific action of the liturgy, many of the fine details were removed from churches, or painted over," Emery said. "Today, we strive hard to revive some of that artistry, and to restore the churches to their earlier conditions."

Given the considerable scope of their projects- Emery points to the ongoing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception project in Springfield, Ill., with planning and prep work dating all the way back to 1993- Conrad Schmitt is somewhat buffered from the shifting economic winds. While Emery said she has seen some clients slow down their projects, moving in stages rather than green-lighting a complete overhaul, she notes that many of the firm's assignments have been in the works for years or decades, minimizing the impact of today's recession.

Emery also points to another key Conrad Schmitt strength being the company's geographic location- headquartered right here in southeastern Wisconsin.

"There is an amazing pool of talent here that we've been able to work with," Emery said. "From the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to all the craftsmen who call Wisconsin home, we feel lucky that we're able to bring in some of the most talented artists in the country."

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