Unity Temple woodwork rehabber has local roots

Former Forest Parker's family business started in Germany

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Six generations! It's remarkable that Heritage Restoration and Design Inc. (HRD), a family business founded in Germany, has thrived for this long. Only three percent of family businesses survive until the fourth generation. 

The current president, Michael Berlinger, grew up in Forest Park and now runs the company out of Peoria. HRD just completed a high-profile project, helping with the interior restoration of the woodwork in Oak Park's Unity Temple. 

Berlinger and his wife, Kathryn, attended the festivities to celebrate the completion of the two-year, $25 million project on June 17. 

"Working at Unity Temple revived many memories of my youth and my first years in the United States," Berlinger said. "Who says you can't come home again?!" 

"Home" for Berlinger means Forest Park, more specifically 529 Beloit Ave. 

"As a young boy, Forest Park was America to me," Berlinger said. 

It's where his parents moved after leaving Bavaria in search of a better life for their family. 

Berlinger's family founded Steinhauer Berlinger, HRD's predecessor, in the northern tip of Bavaria in 1820. 

"My great-great-great grandfather owned a stone quarry," Berlinger said.  "He became a carver and did stone work." 

The family enterprise grew into a construction company, expanding into concrete casting, painting and stucco work. In its prime, it employed eight cousins and 20 employees. However, Alois and Helga Berlinger decided to leave war-torn Germany in 1965 to join Helga's sister in Forest Park. 

"I grew up in a military-occupied country," Berlinger recalled. "There were still remnants of World War II and the country was devastated. Post-war Germany didn't have jobs." 

In the waning days of the war, Alois had been pressed into military service at the age of 13 to build tank traps. Soon, however, they were captured by American GIs, who shipped the teens safely home in trucks. The Berlingers were grateful for the American army. 

Nonetheless, the family sailed from Bremerhaven in June 1965 on the final voyage of the SS Berlin. Berlinger, who was 7 at the time, recalled the luxury liner took nine days to cross the Atlantic. 

They arrived in Forest Park on June 19, 1965 and took up residence on Harrison Street across from The Park. 

"I didn't speak English," Berlinger recalled. 

The first "conversational" phrase he learned was, "Shut up." He said it as a friendly greeting to people walking past. 

He found that Forest Park was welcoming and had everything his family needed, including German beer at Homer's Restaurant. Helga worked there as a waitress and Berlinger became a busboy at age 11. He had already been working for his father for three years. Alois restored stone work and painted historic homes. His now 8-year-old son served as his translator. 

"My dad taught me so many skills, and I passed them down to my sons."

Alois was good friends with Jim Berliner (not a typo, that's a different family), who was in the cemetery monument business. Berlinger had the privilege of painting Berliner's warehouse windows, a tough task for a youngster. Helga became a painter, too, the first female member of the painter's union. She was also the bookkeeper for the family business. 

"My parents had a painting company by about 1968," he recalled, "and became regular advertisers in the Forest Park Review."  

From Harrison Street, the family moved to 913 Ferdinand and later to 529 Beloit. He attended school at St. Bernardine's. He recalled they had a four-stall garage and that survivors of the Titanic lived across the alley. Berlinger had never seen a black person in Germany and assumed a man he saw was a chimney cleaner.  

"It was culture shock coming to America," he said. 

City life was also a bit of a shock, so the family moved to a piece of property on a lake in Peoria. That is where Heritage Restoration and Design is now headquartered. Berlinger's sons play key roles. 

"They have helped transform the company," he said. "They brought in high-tech equipment and landed some high-profile projects."

They successfully bid on the Unity Temple project at the end of 2015. The architect recommended them, and it helped that Berlinger had roots in the area. 

HRD's job was to restore all of the temple's wood moldings, doors, pews, wood fixtures and chandeliers, which required removing thousands of board feet, more than 40 doors and dozens of light fixtures.

"The contractor took them off, bundled and tagged them, and we used semis to ship them to Peoria," Berlinger said. "Some could not be saved, so we reproduced them, using an aging process." 

The wood was over 100 years old. It had to undergo stripping and wood decay restoration. They then applied natural oil finishes. 

"We had to use 30 different stains to get a consistent color," he said. 

HRD's 12 employees, all of them cross-trained in restoration and preservation skills, worked for 18 months on the project. They successfully restored all the wood to the original condition Frank Lloyd Wright specified 110 years ago.

"This is the oldest modern building we've ever worked on," Berlinger said. "Wright was a minimalist, who used modern methods to create classic structures." 

It is not the biggest job they've ever tackled, however. 

"We restored the woodwork in a building from 1894 on the University of Illinois campus. It was massive, four stories and it turned into a two-year project." 

They also restored the Livingston County Courthouse and its counterpart in Hancock County. They even restored two churches in Leadville, Colorado, the highest city in the U.S. at 10,200 feet. 

"We have projects all over the U.S.," Berlinger said. "We also have a project in Holland." 

The company imports tools from Germany and uses them to provide full-service restoration. 

"We restore stone, wood, statues and stained glass," Berlinger said. "Our tradesmen and craftsmen wear many hats and we keep them busy." 

He stays busy as the CEO and helps on the artwork. He also taught his sons hands-on how to do woodworking and wood finishing. Today, Stephen, Christopher, Joseph and Anthony play leading roles at the company.

"My goal was to have my sons involved," he said. "We also encouraged college." 

Berlinger set a good example by returning to college, after a 30-year absence and graduating from Bradley University in 2004. Kathryn serves as the corporate secretary and notary public.

He and his wife have been knighted by the Vatican, specifically the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. This order was founded in 1099 and has 30,000 members. Their mission is to reinforce the practice of Christian life, by their spiritual, charitable and social works. The Berlingers were recognized for their work restoring churches. 

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