Helmut O. Guenschel, founder of a Middle River architectural woodworking firm that bears his name and manufactures museum-quality conservation display cases, died March 1 from prostate cancer and complications from diabetes at Northwest Hospital. The longtime Catonsville resident was 87.
Helmut Otto Guenschel, son of Albrecht Guenschel, a hotelier, and his wife, Johanna Guenschel, a homemaker, was born and raised in Dresden, Germany, where he attended public schools.
As a 12-year-old, he was an eyewitness to the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, which killed an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 people.
“It was only this year that he told me about it,” said a daughter, Andrea Guenschel, who lives in Catonsville. “He saw things that were quite dramatic. He saw things that no child should see.”
When the war ended, at his father’s insistence, and because of the state of the German economy, Mr. Guenschel entered the Schulen für Holz und Gestaltung (Schools for Wood and Design) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where he learned to craft wood.
“He had the mind of a scientist and wanted to study chemistry or fine watch making, but instead, pragmatically studied cabinet making," wrote Ms. Guenschel in a biographical profile of her father.
When he was 17, through the efforts of his school, Mr. Guenschel made a tour of the U.S. in 1950 that solidified his desire to become an American citizen.
“I was always told two facts about this. He waited for two years to be properly vetted, to make sure he was not a spy of some sort," Ms. Guenschel wrote. "When he finally came, it was with $20 in his pocket and nothing else."
After landing in New York in the 1950s, he used the $20 to buy a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Baltimore.
“I still remember sitting in the bus going over the single span of the Delaware Memorial Bridge,” Mr. Guenschel told the JHU Gazette for a 2010 article. “I looked around and thought to myself, I can make it here.' ”
When he came to Baltimore, "he first stayed at the YMCA and worked installing wood interiors in captains’ quarters on steamships at the dock and completed his knowledge of English with a flavorful variety of expletives,” his daughter wrote,
He took a job with Protzman Brothers, a woodworking firm, which took him out of the shop and into an office to work as a draftsman
Mr. Guenschel earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1962 from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he was a member of Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society.
After graduating from Maryland, he took a job with Ellicott Machine Corp., selling dredges in various African countries. He liked to tell the story of presenting an aerial photograph of a customer’s country as a gift at their initial meeting.
“He told me this brought tears to the man’s eyes and he stated, ‘You have given me my country,’ and proceeded to buy an unprecedented amount of dredging equipment,” his daughter wrote.
In 1964, he established Helmut Guenschel Inc., manufacturers of high-quality display cases, modular exhibition systems and cabinets, on Highland Avenue in Highlandtown with three partners, and a decade later relocated the business to Middle River.
“What one can see from what he built, in terms of his company, its installations, or his relationships with people, will never express how he instilled his process on those he worked with, those he strived to design solutions for, or those, like myself, who he endeavored to train,” wrote Ms. Guenschel, who is vice president of the company.
“He was a master of detail and would leave none to question. He always stressed upon me to look at everything from all angles, explore all possibilities, to finish what was started,” she wrote.
The JHU Gazette article described Mr. Guenschel as “a veritable Picasso of museum display cases, and his signature patented design: concealed door hinges that provide a compression seal and are capable of holding 1,000-pound glass panels."
His extensive list of clients includes New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Seattle Art Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, for which he designed a seismic anchor assembly to protect the delicate artifacts in the cases in the earthquake-prone city.
His work can also be found at several major universities, including the the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Johns Hopkins University.
For Hopkins, he designed and his firm built cases and cabinets installed in a 1,600-square-foot space in Gilman Hall housing the archaeological collection of Daniel Coit Gilman, the university’s first president. Other Hopkins installations include those in the Sheridan Libraries and architectural woodwork for the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. For the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s 100th anniversary, he renovated the arched Broadway entrance to its Billings Administration Building.
Other institutions that have benefited from his expertise include the George W. Bush Jr. Presidential Library, National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History.
“His passion and his attention was always on creating the elegant, without revealing the details, nuts or bolts of how something so delicate and beautiful could be so strong,” his daughter wrote. “Some of his largest Viewall glass doors will be installed in a renovation of a famous historic corporate setting, originally designed by Ero Saarinen. The largest door will be over 11 feet wide and weigh more than 600 pounds.”
Cases that Mr. Guenschel designed have been used to display a Gutenberg Bible, the gun that John Wilkes Booth used to kill President Abraham Lincoln and even historic vintage jerseys worn by the New York Yankees.
Mr. Guenschel told The Baltimore Sun in a 2011 interview that while his display cases might be considered works of art, the goal is to draw attention to the items inside. “If the case becomes invisible, then we have done our job,” he said.
Ms. Guenschel said some of her father’s favorite clients were the U. S. Capitol Visitor Center, Army Corps of Engineers, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the National Archives and the Secret Service.
“These gave him immense internal pride”' she wrote.
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“He never retired because it was his life’s work,” Ms. Guenschel said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Guenschel was a ham radio buff. “He built his own oscillator straight key for sending code out of plexiglass and a visible circuitry that he soldered himself. He taught me Morse code,” his daughter wrote. “After that, it was a continual obsession with technology, computers, mobile telephones, iPhones and iPads. He also enjoyed photography.”
He was a member and former board member of the Architectural Woodwork Institute, based in Arlington, Virginia.
He was married for 60 years to the former Magdalena Hugel, a 1957 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s fashion design program with a specialty in millinery.
Funeral services were held March 9 at the Hubbard Funeral Home.