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Obituary: Charles Covert Arensberg / Spurred preservation, renewal in city

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Charles Covert Arensberg championed the development of Station Square and the revitalization of the Mexican War Streets and fought for the preservation of the Duquesne Incline and the Allegheny County Jail and Courthouse.

His interest in local history and architecture led him to help found the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in 1964, years before the public thought Pittsburgh’s historic buildings were worth preserving.

Mr. Arensberg, 88, died yesterday of a stroke in Louisville, Ky., where he had moved about two years ago to be near one of his children.

For 30 years, he was chairman of the History & Landmarks Foundation, the key organization that worked to give new life to old buildings and to strengthen historic neighborhoods in the city.

“It was a lifelong dedication, not a fanciful thing,” said his son, Conrad C.M. Arensberg of Harrisburg.

“He was probably a frustrated architect,” said William J. Staley, of counsel with Tucker Arensberg, P.C., the Downtown law firm where Mr. Arensberg practiced law for 53 years. “He always maintained a deep interest in art, architecture and history.”

Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., president of History & Landmarks and one of its founders, said Mr. Arensberg’s “love of historic buildings and towns was coupled with very firm principles, and his genial disposition set the pattern for our organization.”

“Everyone liked Charlie, but he never compromised on preservation,” said Ziegler.

Mr. Arensberg frequently dashed off letters to the editor, such as the 1991 missive in which he questioned the decision to rename Herrs Island “Washington’s Landing.”

“We can only infer from such a name that the new owners of Herrs Island want us to believe that George [Washington] somehow ‘landed’ on the island. … But there is no other evidence anywhere that George was near Herrs Island, or even knew of its existence,” wrote Mr. Arensberg, always a stickler for historical accuracy.

Mr. Arensberg was born and reared in Oakmont. He graduated from Shady Side Academy in 1930 and received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University.

In 1938, he joined Patterson, Crawford, Arensberg & Dunn, the predecessor to Tucker Arensberg P.C., where his father, Charles F.C. Arensberg, was a partner.

Years later, Mr. Arensberg liked to recall that he went to work at “the princely salary of $100 per month.”

In 1940, he married Gertrude “Gay” Herron Hays. They had four children. She died in 1995.

Mr. Arensberg’s legal career was interrupted twice by World War II.

In 1942-43, he worked in the office of the coordinator of inter-American affairs in Washington, D.C., which was headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller. Its mission was to expand commercial and cultural relations between the American republics.

Mr. Arensberg once said his job as a senior attorney at the agency involved “writing countless contracts and sending 26 copies to various other government officers, some of whom I later found out were either dead or had left government service.”

In 1945, he was attached to the Air Force in Orlando, Fla., where he trained to be a civilian bombing surveyor. On the day he was scheduled to be shipped out to the South Pacific, Gen. Douglas McArthur aborted the mission.

In 1950, the Arensbergs bought a house in Evergreen Hamlet, a historic hamlet in Ross that was designed in 1851 to be the romantic ideal of a suburban English village. Fascinated with its history, Mr. Arensberg wrote an article about it for the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. In later years, the Arensbergs moved to Shadyside.

Although his own background was privileged, Mr. Arensberg had an affinity for the less fortunate.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, he went to Mississippi as a volunteer for the Lawyer’s Constitutional Defense Committee.

Writing about it later, Mr. Arensberg said he “spent two weeks in that hostile atmosphere, living in black quarters, eating buffalo fish with Charlie Evers on South Farish Street, defending black activists and generally being exalted, depressed, fearful and mindful of racial differences to the core.”

Conrad Arensberg said the experience helped shape his father’s views about the need to revitalize neighborhoods like Manchester and the Mexican War Streets.

Mr. Arensberg was active in the local Harvard-Yale-Princeton Club and the Pittsburgh Golf Club and was a leader in fox hunting circles in Western Pennsylvania. In later years, he owned and kept horses on a 50-acre farm in northern Allegheny County

In addition to his son Conrad, he is survived by two other sons, Charles Shaw Arensberg of Louisville, Ky., and Jonathan M. Arensberg of Bakerstown; a daughter, Susan A. Diacou of New York City; and five grandchildren.

Friends may call at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Calvary Episcopal Church Parish House in Shadyside. Funeral services will follow at 11:30 a.m.

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

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