Most often we experience a loss in the built environment visually, with an immediate and palpable recognition that an appreciated structure is no longer there. Whether it is the destruction of the urbane and dynamic Jenkins Arcade in favor of the charmless and ill-formed Fifth Avenue Place, or the willful squandering of Pennsylvania Hall, among other landmarks by Henry Hornbostel at the University of Pittsburgh, we note the disappearance of admired buildings with dismay.
"The door in which a shiny key was turned with pride a century ago lies flat on the ground beside a battered heap of rubble," Walter Kidney lamented vividly for one such structure. Perhaps no one expressed this melancholy more poetically than he did, or fought as effectively, with words as a primary weapon, to prevent such losses.
Now, though, Kidney himself has passed from our midst. The admired architectural historian and preservationist of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation passed away on Dec. 1 at the age of 73. This loss affects the entire city and region, the landscape Kidney documented so vividly, and for which he advocated with such erudition and persistence.
A native of Johnstown, Walter Kidney spent summers as a child at his grandparents' home in Oakland, where he developed his earliest interest in architecture by admiring monuments such as the Carnegie Library and the Soldiers and Sailors memorial. Kidney graduated from Haverford College with a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1954, and later worked at Random House in New York as a dictionary editor. For two years, he was a researcher and writer for Progressive Architecture magazine. From 1968 to 1973, he was an editor at the Press of Case Western University, in Cleveland.
While some of Kidney's best skills were manifest in his pursuits as a lexicographer and editor, "It was his life's work to read and think and write about architecture," says Louise Sturgess, executive director at PHLF. His first book was Historic Buildings of Ohio, in 1972. The Architecture of Choice: Eclecticism in America 1880-1930 was published in 1974 as an appreciation of buildings whose resurgence to national popularity would happen only several years later.
Kidney's truest calling, though, was to be the architectural historian of Pittsburgh. For a number of years, he did freelance research and writing for PHLF, often in collaboration with noted colleague Jamie Van Trump. In 1988, Kidney joined the organization's full-time staff. He was a fixture in local libraries, neighborhoods, Historic Review Commission meetings and anywhere in which local historic architecture needed an articulate defender.
Accordingly, Kidney's literary output addressed Pittsburgh in a sequence of volumes published by PHLF. They include A Past Still Alive (1989); Allegheny Cemetery: A Romantic Landscape in Pittsburgh (1991); Pittsburgh Landmark Architecture: The Historic Buildings of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County (1997); Pittsburgh Bridges: Architecture and Engineering (1999); Henry Hornbostel: An Architect's Master Touch (2002); and a volume in Arcadia's "Images of America" series, Oakland, written in partnership with PHLF and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
The list of titles only hints at the vast knowledge of the man. "He had an incredible, encyclopedic mind," says PHLF Chief Programs Officer Cathy McCollum. "He was wisdom incarnate."
"Any time we had an architectural question, if we wanted an architectural opinion, the name of an architect, or the precise definition of a word we wanted to use, we would go to Walter," PHLF President Arthur Ziegler adds.
As an architectural historian who has done some freelance work for PHLF, I too am one of Walter Kidney's enthusiastic admirers. While his work will continue to be fundamental to anyone interested in Pittsburgh architecture, we will all miss the generous and articulate figure whose pleasantly eccentric, gentlemanly demeanor concealed a very sly wit.
Kidney himself stated, "The preservationist ... can be a scholar, an ideologue, and a propagandist in a general movement to maintain and improve a community that continues to be home to its inhabitants." To that list, he should have added "poet," because, underlying the many preservation efforts that PHLF undertakes through community groups, government agencies and developers, Kidney's words continue to be a motivating and explicating force. According to Ziegler, Kidney "was the foundation of our foundation."