In Memoriam: Walter C. Kidney (1932-2005)
Pittsburgh, Pa….Walter C. Kidney, architectural historian of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation since 1988, died on Thursday, December 1. Author and editor of more than 20 significant publications, his words shaped the philosophy of one of the nation’s most influential and successful historic preservation organizations. “Walter was a foundation of our Foundation,” said president Arthur Ziegler; “his views on architecture were always exactly stated and his knowledge was encyclopedic.”
The following passages from A Past Still Alive, by Walter C. Kidney, published on the occasion of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s 25th anniversary in 1989, summarize his views on historic preservation and his fascination with the Pittsburgh region:
“To begin with, we may well examine history itself from the preservationist’s viewpoint. It is wrong to see history in a merely retrospective way, conceive of it only as an affair of things that have happened. The past and the future are like a cable formed from strands of varying length and prominence that overlap so that, barring some violent severing, they form a continuity regardless of wherever individual strands may end or begin. True preservation will understand this. To most of us, Pittsburgh is home. Things change, in our own little world as individuals, family members, or residents of a neighborhood, and in the larger world of the whole city. Much of the change is at least acceptable, some of it is positively desirable, and if we are lucky the changes are not so radical that we become disoriented and wonder where our home has gone. Preservation, properly understood, understands that there will be a future and seeks to integrate with this future those things from the past that have been especially good and familiar and beautiful: specific buildings and other places in some instances; in other instances ways of building, or using the land, general characteristics of the physical environment that are the preservationist’s special domain. …
“The preservationist should thus concern himself with what is to be built as well as what has to be kept. His knowledge and his interests will be limited, but within his limits he 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.”
“In our case, the visual, material character of the community derives mostly from the dramatic, ambivalent relationship of Man and Nature. The physical geography that provided westward-flowing rivers and seams of coal gave Pittsburgh a reason for coming to be and a reason for growing steadily. That same geography, though, resisted the growth, prevented solid city-wide concentrations of building, scattered construction over the rolling landscape, necessitated great engineering works. It stimulated the works of Man, attacked them, frustrated them, and prevented them from being obsessedly tidy let alone grandiose. Man attacked Nature not only with his retaining walls and pavements but through the fumes of his industrial plants. Atpresent, Nature, patient and opportunistic, is invading the very furnaces now that they are cold….
“Of architecture, we do indeed have handsome examples, just as we have our monuments and our structures and places that there is reason to preserve. But apart from a few isolated places, the continuing visual character of Pittsburgh will depend on a sense of Man in the terrain, the way he builds, the means he uses to impose his will on the stubborn contours of the land. The architecture of the future, which can perpetuate or mar this visual character, will depend on the demands of the evolving social and economic character of the community; and the ways in which we build and in which we occupy the land may alter to meet the new demands. We must be ready, maintaining continuity in the midst of change.”
A Biographical Profile
Walter Curtis Kidney was born January 24, 1932, in Johnstown, Pa., to Mona and Walter C. Kidney. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1942 when Walter’s father accepted a position as a teacher of Greek and Latin. Summers, however, were spent in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood where Walter’s grandparents lived.
Walter attended Haverford College and was graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy in 1954. In 1961 he joined the staff of Random House, Inc. in New York City where he was employed for the next six years as a dictionary editor. In 1967-68 he worked as a researcher and writer for Progressive Architecture magazine. He moved to Cleveland in 1968 to accept an editorial position at The Press of Case Western Reserve University, which he held until 1973. (In 1971, Walter’s father retired and his parents moved to Pittsburgh.)
Walter’s first book, Historic Buildings of Ohio, appeared in 1972. Two years later The Architecture of Choice: Eclecticism in America 1880-1930 was published and is today recognized as a pioneering assessment and defense of an architectural language then widely despised. Sixteen books on architectural history and historic places and structures followed. His later major works, all published by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, would include A Past Still Alive (1989); Allegheny Cemetery: A Romantic Landscape in Pittsburgh (1991); Pittsburgh’s Landmark Architecture: The Historic Buildings of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County (1997), a revision and expansion of a book that first appeared in 1985; Pittsburgh’s Bridges: Architecture and Engineering (1999); and Henry Hornbostel: An Architect’s Master Touch (2002). A volume in Arcadia’s “Images of America Series” on Oakland, written by Mr. Kidney in partnership with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, was published in 2005.
Throughout his career he wrote articles and edited books and manuscripts, first on a free-lance basis, and after 1988 as a member of the Landmarks staff. As Landmarks’ architectural historian, Walter wrote frequently for PHLF News, prepared historic survey documents, represented Landmarks at City Historic Review Commission hearings, participated in architectural tours, and provided research and reference assistance to patrons of Landmarks’ James D. Van Trump Library, to which he donated some 4,000 volumes from his private library.
The library is part of the Foundation’s offices and is located on the fourth floor of The Landmarks Building at Station Square; it is open to members and the public by appointment.
Memorial contributions may be made to PHLF for the Walter Kidney Library and Publications Fund.
Please send your contribution to:
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
100 West Station Square Drive,
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Founded in 1964, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation is a non-profit membership group that specializes in using historic preservation as a tool to renew the Pittsburgh region. Through architecturalsurveys, feasibility studies, preservation loan and grant funds, an easement program, and many educational services, Landmarks works to save architectural landmarks, rebuild historic neighborhoods, instill community pride, and improve the quality of life in this region.