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Walter Kidney / Architectural historian at History & Landmarks Foundation: Died Dec. 1, 2005

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Friday, December 02, 2005

Walter Kidney was about 8 years old when an Ionic capital on the porch of a neighboring Oakland home caught his eye.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Walter Kidney was the architectural historian at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
“I thought there must be such a thing as architecture,” he said in a 2002 interview, recalling that he later noticed the colonnaded entrance to the Oakland Carnegie Library.

“At that point I knew that there was such a thing as architecture, and I really liked it.”

It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for Mr. Kidney, the architectural historian at Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, who died yesterday of kidney failure at UPMC Presbyterian, just a few blocks from the long-vanished summer home he knew as a child. He was 73.

His legacy includes nine books about Pittsburgh buildings, rivers and bridges, written over more than 20 years. In recent months he had been working on a memoir and a series of essays about eclectic buildings in Pittsburgh.

With the death of his sometime collaborator at Landmarks, James Denholm Van Trump, in 1995, Mr. Kidney inherited the mantle of dean of Pittsburgh architectural historians. The two couldn’t have been more different in demeanor, especially in their later years. Mr. Van Trump — Jamie, as almost everyone knew him from his television appearances — was flamboyant and outspoken, with muttonchops and long, wild white hair. Mr. Kidney, who kept his hair closely cropped, spoke in quiet, measured tones and nurtured a droll sense of humor.

Mr. Kidney’s life was the life of the mind. He cared little for appearances but collected about 3,500 architecture and design books over the decades, most of which he donated to Landmarks’ James D. Van Trump Library after leaving his Mount Washington home for a Grandview Avenue apartment in 2001.

His many important contributions to Pittsburgh scholarship, almost all published by Landmarks, include books on Allegheny Cemetery, the work of architect Henry Hornbostel and a popular, 715-page survey book of Allegheny County’s historic buildings.

“In architecture we have not been a particularly creative, or even tasteful, city,” he wrote in the survey book, “Pittsburgh’s Landmark Architecture.” “Of our buildings, generally, the greatest praise we can give is that they do not quarrel with our landscape when seen from afar … The real glory of the region, in fact, is its wonderful spaces, the vivid contours of the land and the sense of distance they create.”

Mr. Kidney “was, to me, the very exemplar of the gentleman-scholar,” said University of Pittsburgh architectural historian Franklin Toker. “Exquisite in manners and in speaking and writing English, he had a passion for good design and the cohesion of a city — not only as good urbanism but as a social community. Whatever cohesion Pittsburgh has today, it owes to thoughtful and creative people like Walter Kidney.”

Mr. Kidney also wrote books about the historic architecture of Ohio and Winchester, Va., and collaborated with Landmarks President Arthur P. Ziegler on several practical guides on the technical and financial aspects of historic preservation.

Born in Johnstown, he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1942, where his father had taken a job teaching Latin and English. He came to know Pittsburgh during summers spent at the rooming house his paternal grandmother owned in Oakland.

After earning a philosophy degree at Haverford College, Mr. Kidney took a job in New York as a lexicographer, writing definitions for the Random House dictionary for terms related to architecture, art history, Oriental religions, engineering, technology and philosophy.

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 he met Mr. Van Trump and Mr. Ziegler, Landmarks’ co-founders, in the late 1960s, when he came to town to write a story on Pittsburgh’s architecture and budding preservation movement.

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

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1978 for a writing and editing job with the now-defunct Pittsburgher magazine, and later worked as a researcher and writer for Landmarks before signing on full-time in the late 1980s.

Friends remember parties 20 years ago at his house, where the walls were lined with Indian bedspreads, books and classical music records and the cast of characters included artists, architects, writers and musicians.

Three years ago, on his 70th birthday, Landmarks’ executive director Louise Sturgess honored him with a small luncheon in his honor — and a certificate that recognized that he, too, had attained the status of a Pittsburgh historic landmark.

A memorial service will be held in about two months, to coincide with his Jan. 24 birthday.

(Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.)

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

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