High Praise: Studio’s Acclaimed Church Artistry Maintains Proud Tradition

By Jill Speegle
Published in Durability & Design

High Praise: Studio’s Acclaimed Church
Artistry Maintains Proud Tradition

From D+D, May 2011

More items for Decorative Finishes
By Jill  Speegle  Editorial Assistant, Durability + Design

Whether Conrad Schmitt Studios’ artisans are renovating the interior details of a simple countryside church or are engaged in meticulous decorative painting of a spectacular urban cathedral, the mission is the same:

Creation of lasting works of craftsmanship that connect with their congregations and communities through the gift of spiritually inspired art.

The self-described “cathedral caretakers” of Conrad Schmitt, based in New Berlin, Wis., have labored for more than 120 years perfecting and restoring decorative elements in 3,500 sacred spaces throughout the U.S., Canada, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

The company traces its origins to 1889, when Conrad Schmitt, the son of Bavarian immigrants, founded his own studio. In 1953, longtime employee Bernard O. Gruenke purchased the firm.

Now, three generations of the Gruenke family are involved in the studio’s internationally recognized work. B. Gunar Gruenke, president, and his sister Heidi Gruenke Emery, vice president, have assumed leadership roles, following in the footsteps of their grandfather Bernard O. Gruenke and father Bernard E. Gruenke.

Conrad Schmitt specializes in ecclesiastical and decorative art, stained glass, and interior design. Preserving the past through comprehensive investigation, analysis and documentation is central to the studio’s scope of work.

“We are the caretakers of great buildings and the creators of beautiful works of art,” Heidi Emery says in defining Conrad Schmitt’s mission.

“Together, with our clients, we create and preserve our architectural and cultural heritage for future generations,” Emery says. “With a unified artistic vision, our experienced staff of artists and craftsmen is dedicated to providing excellence in beauty, quality and longevity in every endeavor.”

Accolades for recent work in Springfield, Ill., cathedral

Recent accolades for the studio recognized its restoration work at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield, Ill. The Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture, along with Faith & Forum magazine, presented the 2010 Religious Architecture Award to Conrad Schmitt for its restoration work on the cathedral.

The international awards program for religious art and architecture was founded in 1978 with the goal of honoring the best in architecture, liturgical design and art for religious spaces.

Originally built in 1927, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was inspired by the design of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The architecture of the cathedral features a coffered ceiling, fluted scagliola columns, low-relief floral panels, and abundant imagery of the gryphon, an allusion to the Springfield Diocese’s spiritual leader at the time of construction, Bishop James A. Griffin. Gryphon is the Greek version of griffin, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

Over time, enormous scagliola columns had yellowed and cracked. Decoration was deteriorated and coated with dirt and candle soot. Conrad Schmitt said in describing its work that this cathedral had only been cleaned and painted once, in the late 1950s, since its construction. “Today, 18 colors enliven the cathedral’s architectural elements,” the studio said, adding that its artisans created and installed 190 canvas panels in the ceiling coffers, each with a nine-layer stencil of leaf, paints and lacquers, creating a three-dimensional rosette motif reminiscent of the ceiling of the Santa Maria.

Glazing and more than 9,000 square feet of 23-karat gold leaf was applied to the relief panel, frieze, ceiling and ornamentation to create depth and dimension, the studio said.

The studio’s work for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception also won a 2010 PIPP (Picture It Painted Professionally) award from The Painting and Decorating Contractors of America.

Rescuing the artistry in Sioux Falls landmark

In a recent commission, Conrad Schmitt was called in to take on a restoration program addressing multiple layers of deteriorating paint and decaying plaster at St. Joseph Cathedral in Sioux Falls, S.D., a church noted for its exceptional stained-glass windows.

Originally built in 1915, the cathedral was designed by the renowned architect Emmanuel Masqueray. Liturgical architect Duncan Stroik was enlisted to direct the restoration program.

Conrad Schmitt artisans were given the task of executing a detailed artistic restoration, in a project that marked the studio’s return to the site of previous painting program, in 1942. Wartime shortages of material and labor had presented challenges at that time, Emery says in a review of the project.

The elaborate artwork created by Conrad Schmitt had been subsequently painted over in one color in the 1970s, hiding details of the plaster moldings, bas relief and Stations of the Cross, Emery says.

Beginning the restoration process in 2009, Conrad Schmitt craftsmen conducted a historic paint investigation to identify artwork that would help guide the creation of a decorative sample. The artists also studied various other Masquerey-designed churches and their color schemes to assemble a palette.

A thorough site examination discovered extensive visible damage.

“The remnant of Masqueray’s designed elements, like the incredible relief work throughout the cathedral, had been obscured by years of function and neglect,” the studio said. The cathedral’s basic infrastructure and architectural decoration required a great deal of attention.

“Eight painted layers and original decoration had delaminated and began to sag and peel away from the substrate,” the studio said in describing the situation. “Decorative plaster around the cathedral’s beautiful stained glass windows suffered some of the greatest damage.”

Scaffolding was erected in a section of the cathedral to apply a sample for evaluation, and colors and patterns were adjusted as needed. This work guided the decoration program and assisted in fund-raising efforts.

In a summary of its work, the studio said the cathedral interior “has been renewed with the removal of damaged paints; plaster patching and repair; priming; painting; subtle polychroming highlights, soft glazes and touches of gold leaf on ornamental plaster; fine art murals; and restoration of the Stations of the Cross.”

Various techniques were employed, including glazing, gilding, stenciling, and trompe l’oeil. The project is nearing completion, which is scheduled for July 2011.

A tradition of artistic vision and meticulous execution

Not surprisingly, Conrad Schmitt Studios has played a major role in bringing back life and ambiance to many churches, cathedrals and basilicas. Some major works are described in the following summaries.

    - Built in 1850, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Ala., was restored with installation of a new, coffered ceiling with fleur de lis symbols, representing the Blessed Virgin Mary, and shamrocks for the Trinity. The historic Romanesque interior, including new ornamental plaster, was painted, gilded and glazed.

    - The interior of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Ky., built in 1852, had been coated with conventional paint. The studio utilized trompe l’oeil painting to create the appearance of stone and tracery on the back of the sanctuary. The artisans also restored the church’s Coronation Window, which was believed to be one of the oldest American-made stained glass windows in the U.S.

    - Studio artisans unified the decoration and artwork of The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, Tenn., with a color palette and appropriate techniques for the 1930s landmark. A new apse mural was painted, modeled on Murillo’s Assumption of the Virgin, while two murals framing the sanctuary were conserved to recapture their original appearance.

    - The Post-Vatican II layout of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, in Milwaukee, was highlighted with a decorative painting scheme. The studio used soft, muted shades to create a warm and elegant backdrop for the liturgy and harmonization with architectural elements, including marble and terrazzo.

    - Work at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, Ga., included cleaning of artwork, eradication of mold and meticulous decorative painting. The artisans conserved and restored 24 murals originally produced by the studio of Paul Gutsche in 1912.

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