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A landmark himself, Kidney remains devoted to city’s architecture

By Patricia Lowry,
Post-Gazette architecture critic
Wednesday, February 27, 2002

You have to envy Walter Kidney’s commute.

Monday through Friday, he leaves his seventh-floor Grandview Avenue apartment, walks across the street to the Monongahela Incline and, when he gets to the bottom, crosses the street to his Station Square office. That’s living — city living, and Kidney, architectural historian at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You sort of miss things like trees and so on because you’re above them,” he said in his down-to-earth office at One Station Square, stacked with plat books dating to 1889 showing how Pittsburgh evolved from farmland to dense neighborhoods. “But it’s a very nice outlook and a real surprise up there. You realize how the relationship of things to one another spatially is so different. You find that things are a few degrees off from where you think they ought to be.”

Kidney, who moved to his perch on Grandview last fall, has lived on Mount Washington since 1978, when he took up permanent residence here after moving in and out of the city most of his life.

Late last month, when he celebrated his 70th birthday over lunch with a group of friends and colleagues at the Grand Concourse, Kidney officially became a Pittsburgh historic landmark — so proclaimed the citation presented to him by PHLF’s executive director, Louise Sturgess.

Over more than 20 years, Kidney has written five books about Pittsburgh buildings, rivers and bridges, but the road to honorary landmark status was anything but direct.

Born in Johnstown, he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1942, where his father had taken a job teaching Latin and English. For many years, he spent summers at his grandmother’s rooming house in Oakland, a big, circa-1900, red brick place at the corner of Fifth and Lothrop where “there was always space for her children and their wives.”

He was about 8 years old, he remembers, when he noticed an Ionic capital on someone’s porch.

“I thought there must be such a thing as architecture,” he said. Later, “I went to the [Oakland] Carnegie Library and looked at the doorway facing the Magee memorial. At that point I knew that there was such a thing as architecture, and I really liked it.”

Although he considered studying art history at Haverford College, he chose philosophy, and after graduation he took a job in New York writing definitions for the Random House dictionary, for terms related to architecture, art history, Oriental religions, engineering, technology and philosophy.

Then, through a college classmate, he found a job as a writer on the staff of Progressive Architecture magazine. Pennsylvania was part of his beat, and through it, in the late 1960s, he met PHLF co-founders Arthur Ziegler and James D. Van Trump, when he wrote a story on Pittsburgh’s architecture and nascent preservation movement.

But after two years, he and the magazine parted company: “You know I was too old-fashioned for them, really.”

It was, after all, the eclectic architecture of the Oakland civic center and the Colonial, Greek Revival and Victorian buildings of Philadelphia that had shaped the man.

But the experience led to what Kidney calls “a crisis in conscience.”

“I wanted to write something that might settle my own mind about eclecticism” — buildings inspired by historical or contemporary styles from other countries and eras. “I was feeling rather guilty and shallow about liking these things because they’re a masquerade. I decided I wanted to be a modernist, but did I really want to reject all this eclectic stuff?”

In 1974, New York publisher George Braziller brought out Kidney’s “The Architecture of Choice: Eclecticism in America 1880-1930.” In it, he explores why the eclectics built the way they did — partly as a reaction to the overwrought Victorian styles — and how they were trumped by the modernists.

In the end, “The more I thought about it, the more I thought modern architecture was sort of a Barmecide feast,” Kidney said.

Hmmm, spoken like a lexicographer. What kind of feast?

“It’s a byword for plenty of nothing. I’ve never understood why people get thrilled by Louis Kahn, for instance,” although he does admire the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

After a brief sojourn back to Pittsburgh, writing a how-to book on historic preservation for Ziegler, Kidney moved to Connecticut in 1976 to edit dictionaries for publisher Laurence Urdang. Then it was back to Pittsburgh two years later for a writing and editing job with the now-defunct Pittsburgher magazine. When a new editor decided stories should be written in the New Journalism style, he once again moved on — this time to a stable position with PHLF. He free-lanced for about a decade before joining the staff in the late 1980s.

His long-awaited current project — “Hornbostel in Pittsburgh” — is expected to be published in October, documenting 70 projects Henry Hornbostel designed between 1904 and 1939, from the Carnegie Tech campus to a house in Monroeville. Kidney has been at it for more than a decade.

“It’s been a long, long time. I started working on that in 1990. It was held back [from publication]. We had other things to do, and you have to raise money for these things.

“Hornbostel’s works have a touch of brilliance that you don’t find in other people’s. It’s not so much the grandiose beaux-arts stuff that you find in other architects but a certain verve and wit and grandeur. For instance, you have this big corridor in the City-County Building, and the glass ends, where people look like they’re walking by in thin air.”

Next, he hopes to write a book about eclecticism in Pittsburgh.

“I’d like to write about some of the brilliant stuff we have here, because it’s regarded as superficial,” he said. “I’m thinking of calling it ‘Dressed for the Occasion.’ ”

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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