Richard Guy Wilson
Director of the Victorian Society in America Newport Summer School
Commonwealth Professor’s Chair in Architectural History at the University of Virginia
One of the highlights of every summer for the past nearly 40 years has been to see Gwen’s shining smiling face at one of the American Summer Schools. Always lively and interested, she would post a question to me that would give me pause. I met Gwen Koch in the summer of 1976 when I attended one of the greatest educational experiences of my life, the Victorian Society Summer School in London. Gwen was there with Ruth Emery who co-founded the summer school. Gwen and I hit it off and over many meals (and a few pints) and some bus rides to other cities we discussed Victorian in all its aspects: architecture, gardens, decorative arts, painting, and preservation. This event led to my being called to participate in the first American Summer School in 1978 and then I was asked to take it over. Gwen was a firm supporter of the American summer school even when it floundered in the early 1980s and advocated fiercely for getting it going again, first in Philadelphia and then Newport. Through the help of Gwen the summer school has flourished and she supported many other causes such as the Reitz House in Evansville where I have had the honor to visit and speak several times. She helped preserve some of the important architecture in Evansville and also brought to the consciousness of many Americans, young and old, professionals and students, and just interested individuals the importance of our Victorian past. She will be missed greatly by many people across the United States and abroad, as she made quite an impact.
Summer Schools Advisory Committee Member
Author and Architectural Historian
Although my relationship to Gwen came originally from the Victorian Society, it became far more as she became not only a fun 'Victorian' friend but so much more in her inestimable way of spanning roles from those of a “grandma” of sorts to that of confidant and guide to life's many mysteries and chapters. She will be sorely missed by one and all.
President, Victorian Society in America, Co-Chair Summer Schools Committee
I confess that I was in love with Gwen Koch! I met her at my first VSA Board meeting in the early 80s. She sat next to me, and offered a running-commentary throughout the proceedings. She made me feel completely welcome - and she made me laugh. That pretty much summarizes the Gwen I knew for the next 30 or so years. She was a great friend and she offered me her opinion or advice on just about everything - whether solicited or not. When they popularized the phrase 'tell it like it is' they must have had Gwen in mind, because she always got right to the point!
Usually the first thing she would say when we met up was "we have to talk!" and talk we did - or rather SHE did. She mentored me through my years as Society president, offering a lot of constructive criticism, and later was an invaluable help to me as Summer Schools Co-Chair. Those schools meant everything to her, and she was going to make sure they were run right—which meant to her exacting standards. She tirelessly talked about and promoted them, handing out business card or flyers or asking me to do that for her, and in fact many of those who attended the schools were her direct recruits.
When Gwen became frail in recent years a number of us organized a tag team to make sure that Gwen would be able to come to our study tours and annual meetings, and attend them she did, even if it meant her taking multiple flights to get there and back. She remained active and involved as recently as three weeks before her passing, when she attended our study tour and symposium in Chicago.
One of my recent and most vivid memories of Gwen is sharing dinner with her and several colleagues at a Spanish restaurant on Michigan Avenue, where she had her mandatory gin and tonic, followed by a glass or two of wine. It was obvious that she was having a wonderful time, and she enthused about how much she enjoyed 'that place with all the small dishes' for the rest of the weekend.
I consider myself blessed to have known Gwen. She was definitely one of a kind and I shall miss her very much.
President, Alumni Association of the Victorian Society Summer Schools
Gwen and I really bonded when I became President of the Alumni Association of the Victorian Society Summer Schools over eight years ago. She enthusiastically encouraged all my efforts to support the Summer Schools. Her wise counsel based on her long history of the Schools was extremely helpful and appreciated. We also became great friends and got into lots of “mischief,” as we called it including hitchhiking a ride in the rain in Washington DC where there were no taxis available, sharing the wedding suite in a hotel in New Orleans with an elevated bed and a huge Jacuzzi that neither of us could get in or out of and sleeping in the Murphy bed in our New York apartment. Her daughter-in-law emailed me two days before Gwen died that she wanted to talk to me. When I called her, her main message was to be sure to represent her at the October 24th Summer Schools Committee meeting in New York. She said she was saving her strength for the March 2015 meeting to select the students. Her mind was sharp to the end. She was always a joy to be with. We had so many terrific times together.
Summer Schools Committee Co-Chair
Victorian Society In America Vice-President, President Emeritus
Although I don’t have the lengthy history with Gwen that my esteemed Alumni Association colleagues have, I spent countless hours over the last three years with Gwen since we became “roomies” on Victorian Society study tours. This was in no way an obligation but rather a time for me to realize how engaging, enlightening and always entertaining Gwen could be. Plus, being so tiny, she hardly took up any space in the room, except for that enormous suitcase she traveled with.
Gwen and I spent countless hours in the early morning and late night of our study tours discussing family, friends, her favorite cities (including Chicago and Evansville), historic houses, the Summer Schools, her long involvement with the Victorian Society, the myriad of people she knew (most of whom she liked) and the latest VSA news. She talked so often about her children and grandchildren that I feel like I know them. Gwen was always a pure delight to be with—cheery, enthusiastic, incredibly sharp, intuitive, and very funny. She astounded me with her ability to plan. She was always ready for a cup of coffee regardless of the hour and eager for a gin and tonic after a long day of touring.
It was an honor to host Gwen at my home following the Chicago symposium and study tour three weeks ago when her flight back to Evansville was canceled. It will be my fondest memory to think of her sitting at my kitchen table, talking and laughing with my husband over her gin and tonic, with my dogs at her feet.
Thank you so much, dear Gwen.
Sibyl McCormac Groff
Former Chair of the Summer Schools Committee and Advisory Committee Member
Gwen was my mentor and advisor on all sorts of books, historic preservation, architecture, cuisine, Christmas, antiques, the various chapters of my life. A happy memory is visiting Gwen in Indiana and going to New Harmony, where she bought me Paul Tillich, the noted philosopher and theologian's book "The Courage to Be" which was her philosophy and is the spirit of our Gwen! Her "star" is twinkling and will continue to inspire us!
2014 Newport Summer School Scholar
A Candidate, History of Design and Curatorial Studies '15 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
I had the pleasure of meeting Gwen this past summer in Newport. Though our time was short, I truly appreciate the moments we had together. I feel fortunate to have met such a beautiful, inspiring soul. One thing I will certainly remember: it was very important for Gwen to have her drink everyday at 5pm. Her youthfulness was contagious! She will be greatly missed.