Franklin Toker brought architecture of Pittsburgh and the world to life

Franklin K. Toker, Distinguished Professor of History of Art and Architecture — who brought hundreds of years of world architecture alive for his students and the public, and made the city of Pittsburgh a special subject of his study — died April 19, 2021.

Departmental colleague Christopher J. Nygren believes Toker’s legacy is clear: “The most obvious thing is the engagement with the city. In the history of art and architecture, we tend often to be teaching about great cities in Europe, buildings in China, mosques in Iran. So we are frequently showing our students things they will never see and unconsciously creating in them the impression that their own city doesn’t stack up. … One of the things Frank taught us was to look around — the argument that our city was something to offer our students …

“Frank gave to us and our students a love for our city — it challenged all of us to try to use the city, to try to look at the city, not just as an example of a post-industrial city. When you look at it through Frank’s eye you begin to see the layers of humanity in the city of Pittsburgh in a new way.

“It’s a huge loss,” Nygren said. “They do not make scholars like this anymore. In truth they never made scholars like this.” In many areas Toker seems to have trained himself, adding additional expertise, said Nygren. “He had an essential drive to master things where he never had a teacher. That is a humbling thing when you are a scholar — I have no excuse for not learning a new field.”

Toker’s scholarly achievements became internationally recognized during his lifetime. He was as well regarded for his work on the history of the Baptistery and Cathedral in Florence as for his revelatory work on the development of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

Born April 29, 1944, Toker earned his degrees from McGill University, Oberlin College and Harvard. His early career began with his archaeological excavation at Florence Cathedral. Starting as a graduate student, he eventually became superintending archaeologist and later director of excavations, which resulted in four books, published 2009-2016.  

But Toker is best known to the public for two works. The first is “Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait” (1986), supplemented by “Buildings of Pittsburgh” (2007), and updated later as “Pittsburgh: A New Portrait.” More recently, he released “Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kauffmann Jr and America’s Most Extraordinary House” (2003), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and which Janet Maslin in the New York Times labeled “a contentious, rapt and utterly fascinating book.”

Toker was president of the Society of Architectural Historians (1993-94), the premier professional organization in his field, and was active there and in other top academic organizations in Europe and the United States. He was awarded the major fellowships in his field from the Kress Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Graham Foundation and others, as well as research residencies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and a Rockefeller Foundation residency at Bellagio.

He was also a visiting professor at three universities in Italy and was an expert consultant on several built heritage projects in Pittsburgh and in Québec. He was regularly invited to speak at international and local conferences, including frequent keynote addresses.

His colleagues credit him with playing a crucial role in the development of the architectural studies program, as he taught large and popular courses on every subject from American to Renaissance and medieval architecture.

He also regularly conducted architectural tours of the Pittsburgh region for students.

He served on the Faculty Assembly and the University Senate, on the councils of the Honors College and College of General Studies, on provost-led panels and on Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences councils. He was also acting chair of his department in 2007.

Drew Armstrong, Toker’s faculty colleague since 2005 and director of architectural studies, recalls Toker’s dedication to teaching such a large number of courses: “He was always a very engaging and enthusiastic speaker and he really brought the material alive for the students.”

Toker took equal care with his public lectures, Armstrong said, calling them “remarkable. You could really see how carefully he crafted his lectures. He was someone who really took into account his audience — so they were never dull.” Toker even consulted with reporters on national news magazines of the time, when preparing his popular works, to learn how journalists balanced research and writing for their audience.

His legacy, to Armstrong, remains “that we have a flourishing group of faculty who are architecture specialists. Our program is in good shape because he was one of our colleagues.”

“Professor Toker’s scholarly attainments as a historian of the architecture of late medieval and early Renaissance Italy and of twentieth-century America are internationally recognized as path-breaking in both fields,” said another departmental colleague, Terry Smith. “A very rare achievement. Based on painstaking interdisciplinary research, they led to the posing of unexpected questions and resulted in highly original answers that are appreciated by both scholars and the general public.”

As for his teaching, Smith said, “Professor Toker was dedicated above all to the idea that students must have the opportunity to experience the built environment for themselves.”  

For all his celebration of Pittsburgh, Toker was not afraid to express contrary opinions. He told the University Times in 2002: “The people running this University would fall into the counter-modernist camp. … If you look at the range of architecture surrounding the Cathedral of Learning, it’s kind of a theme park of replica buildings, representing the architecture of the past speaking to the present.” And he found the brutalist Posvar Hall to be simply “hideous.”

Christopher Nygren recalled his first impression of Toker, at Nygren’s job interview here in 2014: “Frank was a very jovial man who was hard to forget. He took me on the Frank Toker tour of Pittsburgh, for three hours. He made it clear that he was just doing this because he wanted me to see the city. That was a real act of generosity — there were few things that got him more energized than showing off the city of Pittsburgh.”

And he remembered another early occasion, when the sound of a bell and wheels in the hallway of Frick Fine Arts Building surprised him — it was Toker cycling in from home to pick up his mail on a summer day.

“He was a theatrical presence in every part of his life, from a dinner party to the classroom,” Nygren said. “He always had an amazing archive of stories that he could go to that were simultaneously entertaining and revealing.”

His long-time colleague Katheryn Linduff, now retired, composed a remembrance of Toker, calling him “as true a Pittsburgher as one could ever be — a Pittsburgh landmark, a walking historic plaque, as well as a towering world class scholar …  Frank was masterful at engaging [students] by promising that if they really listened and thought about what was being discussed, that such a study/course had the potential to change one’s life … He really started them on lifelong journeys of thought and inquiry. 

“In his memory, gaze over your own part of the world,” she concluded.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen; children Sarah, Mackie and Jeffrey (Tarah); grandchildren Ayden, Franklin, Sylvia, Cameron, Dexter and Mason; and sister Charlotte Guttman.

— Marty Levine