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Interesting items in collection shed light on intellectual appetite of architectural historian

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When he died in December at age 73, architectural historian Walter Kidney left everything he owned to his longtime employer, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Which comprised what, exactly?

“Not much, generally,” said Jack Miller, Mr. Kidney’s executor and Landmarks’ director of gift planning. “Walter’s estate comprised Walter’s personality more than anything else. Most of his assets were in his books, about 4,000 that he gave us over his life and about 200 still in his apartment” on Mount Washington at the time of his death.

His books will go in a special alcove in Landmarks’ library, along with some of his furniture and artwork. But next Saturday Landmarks is selling at auction 40 lots from Mr. Kidney’s estate, much of which has more sentimental than market value. Many are objects that might be prized by those who knew him or simply admired his work — nine books about Pittsburgh buildings, rivers and bridges, written over more than 20 years.

“You’re not going to find necessarily extraordinary things, but the flavor of a rather interesting collector,” said another colleague, Landmarks historical collections director Al Tannler.

There are small carved boxes from Poland, Islamic brass trays, a South American machete, brass jardinieres from India, porcelain teapots from France, a metal bowl from Korea, a carved oak Ionic column capital and an antique, cast-iron Japanese teapot.

Mr. Tannler said Mr. Kidney used the carved boxes to hold “paper clips and pencils and change and things like that.”

“The machete, we can’t explain,” Mr. Miller said.

Proceeds from the sale will support additions to Landmarks’ library and archives as well as its publication of two posthumous Kidney books — “Life’s Riches: Excerpts on the Pittsburgh Region and Historic Preservation From the Writings of Walter C. Kidney” and a memoir, “Beyond the Surface: Architecture and Being Alive.” Both books will be available Oct. 30.

The Kidney items will be the first 40 lots sold at 10 a.m. next Saturday as part of a 943-lot auction of local estates at the Constantine & Mayer auction house in Cheswick.

The standout piece from the Kidney estate is a cherry Pennsylvania corner cupboard, circa 1840. At least two of its six panes of glass appear to be original. It may have been in Mr. Kidney’s family, Mr. Miller said, as some of the other pieces are thought to have been, including a 17-jewel, silver Waltham pocket watch, circa 1890, and a 14-karat gold, diamond-and-emeralds ring that might have been his mother’s engagement ring. A Chelsea brass ship’s bell clock “tied in with his passion for riverboating,” Mr. Tannler said.

Noteworthy among a small group of two-dimensional artworks is an oil-on-board painting by Pittsburgh artist Harry Scheuch (pronounced shoysh, 1906-78), presumably a Pittsburgh street scene, with some repairable flaking of the paint. There’s also a small woodcut of a bobwhite by Boyd Hanna (1907-1987), a self-taught Pittsburgh wood engraver whose work is in the collection of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.

Other furniture includes a Victorian side chair, a small Oriental table, an oak and iron ice cream table and a folding, tabletop book stand. The auction house has not assigned pre-sale estimates on any of the items in this sale.

Constantine & Mayer, founded in 2000 by Jeff Constantine and wife Joyce Mayer, held auctions at the West View Firemen’s Banquet Hall, Oakmont Country Club and other locations before moving in January to its own space — a former A&P grocery store in the Cheswick Shopping Center.

“Since we did the University Club auction, we’ve been representing a lot of good things coming out of Pittsburgh. It seems like the floodgates opened with the University Club,” said Mr. Constantine.

The million-dollar auction of 175 lots of art and antiques in November 2004 included five items that reached record-setting prices.

A Cleveland native who moved west with his parents as a child, Mr. Constantine opened his first antiques shop at age 16 in San Diego. He’s been a picker, dealer or auctioneer ever since, moving back east in 1980. Western Pennsylvania was attractive because “there was a lot of older estates, a lot of material available and you could live inexpensively,” he said. By 1994, he was executive director at East End’s Dargate Auction Galleries.

Items of interest in Saturday’s sale from other estates include five 1930s Leica cameras, two blackware bowls from Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos, and a large, bark-and-feather ornament from the prow of a canoe in New Guinea, with a carved, ghostly mask representing a protective ancestral spirit. It was collected in the 1950s by a Dutch magistrate on the Sepik River and sold in Florida for $350 in 1972.

“The strength of this sale is in the small items,” Mr. Constantine said.

Come Nov. 18 and 19, the auction house will pull out the big stuff for its annual “November to Remember” sale, including a Tiffany-style window depicting a formal garden and fountain and a sizable cache of marble and bronze sculptures, antique furniture and architectural artifacts removed 30 years ago from a North Side house demolished during the construction of I-279 and in storage ever since.

Next Saturday’s auction will not include Mr. Kidney’s diverse music collection. His cache of 78-speed records went to Carnegie Library. At Landmarks’ library, a new Walter Kidney alcove will be filled with his books, furniture and the plat maps and artworks he collected. Two Pittsburgh scenes — a 1930s Esther Phillips watercolor and an undated Louise Boyer drawing — will hang on the walls near the refectory table he used at home as a desk. And hanging nearby will be an eclectic assortment of headgear — his caps and his Panama and deerstalker “Sherlock Holmes” hats.

“We couldn’t get rid of those,” Mr. Miller said.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633