SAH News


Obituary: Robert W. Duemling (1929-2012)

by Richard Longstreth | Nov 14, 2012

Many SAH members will remember Robert Duemling from the years (2003-2009) he served on the board, during which time he was an active supporter of our organization’s endeavors in a number of ways. But relatively few of us may be aware of his long and illustrious career. Bob had a passion for architecture, especially American architecture, which was nurtured at Yale, where he received a B.A. in American studies in 1950 and an M.A. in the history of art and architecture three years later. His career then took a very different trajectory, with four years in naval intelligence and thirty years in the Foreign Service, specializing in the political affairs of the Far East. He served in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching (Borneo), Osaka, and Tokyo, culminating in the ambassadorship to the Republic of Suriname (1982-84). Before then, he was principal negotiator for assembling the foreign military components of the Sinai peace-keeping force and thereafter he served as director of the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office.

Upon retirement from the State Department in 1987, Bob became the second director of the newly formed National Building Museum in Washington. At that time, the museum was a struggling institution, which suffered from a severe dearth of operating funds and no endowment. Its small staff and virtually non-existent collections were housed in Montgomery Meigs’s splendid Pension Building, but the museum suffered from deteriorating relations with its landlord, the General Services Administration.


Over the course of six-and-a-half years, Bob transformed the institution. He helped build a strong and dedicated staff, worked to expand the board and increase its involvement, launched major exhibitions, many of them as innovative in presentation as in content. Among the most striking was an exhibit devoted to the history and current applications of sheet metal, housed in a multi-story structure designed by Frank Gehry, which occupied much of the space in the western third of the building’s great court. An archive began to be developed and exhibition catalogues produced. During his tenure, too, a pioneering children’s education program was introduced, which received national attention for the acuity of its programming. Fundraising began in earnest. Using diplomatic skills honed over the previous decades, Bob developed a good working relationship with the GSA and with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The Pension Building was transformed from a semi-renovated warehouse to a showcase that attracted numerous special events (a key source of museum funding) and inaugural balls, a function for which the court had been specifically designed to accommodate.

I had the good fortune to serve on the board for a major portion of Bob’s tenure and saw firsthand the consummate skill with which he implemented myriad changes, always in a low-key, but deliberate, manner. When he stepped down, he left the museum viable as an institution and an attractive one for growth and development. Without him, it is questionable whether the museum would have remained a reality for long.

His enduring love of architecture was subsequently channeled not only through his involvement with SAH and the Center for Palladian Studies in America, but at Washington College, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where, after serving on the Board of Visitors and Governors, he taught a course in American architecture for several years. I let him make duplicates of many of my slides for that enterprise. In return he allowed me to duplicate some of his transparencies taken some fifty years previous. One summer, while he was a graduate student, Henry-Russell Hitchcock had loaned him a Leica and given him film (Kodachrome, fortunately) to photograph Modern architecture in California, where Bob’s family resided. Rare shots indeed, and one of many surprising aspects of a remarkable life. SAH has lost an avid supporter and a great friend.

Richard Longstreth,
George Washington University