Susan Gray Detweiler, 85, was an author, art historian, community volunteer, genealogist, and loving wife, mother, and grandmother. A longtime resident of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, PA, she passed away peacefully in her home on Tuesday, December 26, 2023. She was surrounded by her devoted family.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Susan was the eldest child of Donald Monteith Gray, an executive at Hallmark International, and Margit Pearson Gray, a home economics teacher. Her childhood years were spent across various states including Illinois, New York, Minnesota, and Kansas. She graduated from Shawnee-Mission High School in Johnson County, Kansas, in 1956. Susan's academic career led her to Wellesley College, where she earned her BA in 1960, followed by an MA in Art History from Harvard University (Radcliffe) in 1961.
In 1961, Susan married Will Detweiler, a city planner and landscape architect. Their paths first crossed as graduate students in Cambridge, MA, where they resided in the same apartment building. During the Nixon/Kennedy debate they shared their first date, marking the start of their six-decade-long romance. The couple tied the knot, and shortly thereafter embarked on a four-year adventure in Wiesbaden, Germany, during Will’s service as a staff officer with the US Air Force for NATO. During their time in Germany, Susan's fluency in German proved invaluable as she took on the role of secretary for the German American Women’s Club in Wiesbaden, for which she was honored for her service. She also volunteered at the Air Force library. These early experiences laid the foundation for what would become a lifetime of dedicated and selfless community service.
Upon returning to the United States, Susan worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Department of Decorative Arts and for 30 years as curator for the McNeil Americana Collection in Wyndmoor, PA. The McNeil family endowed the Philadelphia Museum of Art with the position known to all as the Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art in honor of her exceptional dedication and contributions to the field.
Susan was the leading expert on American Presidential China, traveling country-wide to give lectures on the history of ceramics in America and serving a term as president of the American Ceramic Circle. Her publications include George Washington’s Chinaware(Abrams, 1982) which won the Montgomery award of the Decorative Arts Society and the Athenaeum Literary Award; and American Presidential China (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1975); and American Presidential China: The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Yale, 2008). Susan personally translated her books into German. Through her work, Susan met numerous first ladies and spent time working with the curatorial staff at the White House. Her work granted her unique access throughout the White House, including the Oval Office.
Upon moving to Chestnut Hill, and inspired by the thoughtful design of the community, Susan and her husband Will wrote and prepared for publication Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History (Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 1969). Over the next four decades she would go on to write and edit several essays and other contributions to the study and appreciation of the decorative arts, material culture, and design. As a researcher and editor, she contributed to Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (W.W. Norton, 1982), the Bill Moyers: Report from Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention documentary and Twelve Artists exhibition catalog for the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA.
Among her other projects in historic American design was a comprehensive plan to furnish and decorate the Hill-Physick-Keith House (1786) in Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood, as well as a museum and memorial to Dr. Phyisck’s medical office. Both projects were funded by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission. Susan also worked on a consortium of historic houses in Germantown, funded by the William Penn Foundation. She lectured at several national institutions including Winterthur, Smithsonian Masters Program, Baltimore Museum of Art and many others. Additional clients included Lower Merion Township, Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and the Valley Forge Historical Society. She worked as the executive director of the Friends of Independence National Historic Park in the 1980s.
Susan led a quiet life of dedicated community service, devoting her time to history and social service institutions up and down Germantown Avenue. She served on the boards of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, Woodmere Art Museum, the Germantown Historical Society, Wyck, the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, and KenCrest Services. She was a member of the 128-year-old Study Class in Philadelphia where she most recently presented a paper on author and cultural sociologist Zora Neale Hurston.
Susan enjoyed spending time in her garden, her many dogs over the years, her in-depth work in genealogy, reading all kinds of books (but especially Swedish murder mysteries!), her children and grandchildren and her daily New York Times crossword puzzles — the harder the puzzle the more she liked it.
Susan's legacy extends beyond Philadelphia; she will be fondly remembered as a resident of Montgomery County, PA, where she was a founding member of the Worcester Township Historical Society, and as a resident of Charleston, SC.
Her spirit, marked by her contributions to art history and charitable works, will continue to inspire her family and friends. She will be forever cherished as a loving mother, grandmother and devoted wife and for her brilliance, wisdom and perspective. She lived a life full of passion and purpose.
Susan is predeceased by her parents and her brother, John Monteith Gray, MD. (Nancy).
Her memory will forever remain with her husband Will Detweiler; daughters Margit Ruth Detweiler (Mark L. Gardner) and Sara Gray Detweiler Loughman (Thomas J.); son John Stover Detweiler (Gail) and four grandchildren: John Stover Detweiler, Jr.; Anna Gray Loughman; Ava Sutton Detweiler; and Catherine Grace Loughman.
There will be a private service of committal at Washington Crossing National Cemetery.