Gazing at a nighttime skyline, Jane Holtz Kay might glimpse a lit steeple that “transforms the architecture of the evening,” its gentle beauty adding to Boston’s “smudged but endearing glamour.”
With homegrown love backed by extensive research, her lyrical writing celebrated, and sometimes chastised, the city that was her home.
“Boston was a maze of masonry and greenery, unwinding endlessly as a child’s vistas unwound,” she wrote in the preface to “Lost Boston,” her book-length meditation on the city’s vanishing architectural heritage. Recalling the sights that made up her own early memories, Ms. Kay asked: “When does a child realize that the frame for all these splendors is architecture?”
In books and in her architecture criticism for the Globe and The Nation magazine, she was at once a preservationist, a historian, and a guide toward what she hoped would be a more sensible approach to endless urban evolution.
“She was one of the people who helped preserve the best of Boston and promote Boston as a city where the beautiful old could coexist with the entrepreneurial new,” said her younger sister, Ellen Goodman, a former Globe columnist. “I think Jane in her work helped save Boston, not to be too dramatic about it.”
Ms. Kay, who in 1991 gave up her car to more fully embrace city living in the Back Bay, died Nov. 4 in the Springhouse senior community in Jamaica Plain. She was 74 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
Bringing to her writing both practical experience and a philosophical commitment to an urban existence, Ms. Kay contributed a chapter to the 2003 book “Toward the Livable City.”
“Is the city cacophonous? Irritating? Disrupted? Yes. Is the glass half full? Half empty? Yes, of course, both, and at the same time. Name it what you will, but add one thing: it is also this fragile planet’s last, best hope,” she wrote.
City living, she believed, is “the only alternative to settling on the ever-contracting fringes, consuming the last chance landscape, extinguishing resources and species. If we are ever to become ecofluent, as the green warriors put it, the strengthening of our lived-in cities is where it must take place.”
Despite her affection for cities, she had a sharp eye for miscues, and shook her head as Boston let advertisers turn every spare space, from kiosks to light poles to bus stops, into mini-billboards.
“Call it the spamming of Boston,” she wrote for the Globe in 2003.
“This is how the city slides,” she added. “Not with a bang, but inch by inch, row by row.”
Born in Boston, Ms. Kay was the older of two daughters and grew up in Brookline. Her father was a lawyer who served in the state Legislature and ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
Campaigning with him took her “from the tree-shaded houses of Jamaica Plain to the tenements of Mission Hill,” she wrote in “Lost Boston,” and provided an “education of the eyes.”
She graduated from what was then the Buckingham School for girls and went to Radcliffe College, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1960, majoring in American history and writing a thesis on Lewis Mumford, a renowned 20th century cultural critic and urban authority.
“That probably started her down the road of thinking about city planning and art and architecture,” her sister said.
Ms. Kay worked as a reporter for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, married, and had two daughters: Julie, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jacqueline Cessou, who lives in Paris.
After the birth of her daughters, Ms. Kay worked mostly as a freelance writer and author. Her marriage ended in divorce.
“I think everybody who knew Jane knew that she was wonderfully lively and funny and engaging, and at the same time really committed to her work,” her sister said.
In the emotional architecture of Ms. Kay’s life, the wall between work and home was thin.
“So much of what my mother was professionally was what she was personally,’’ Julie said.
That was particularly true with “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back,” the 1997 book Ms. Kay wrote in the years after she gave up her car.
“This is not a proposal for nostalgia,” she wrote in the concluding chapter. “It is a search for creative forward motion to shape the way we transport ourselves and hence live.”
In an e-mail, Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University, said “Asphalt Nation” was “a powerful and persuasive indictment of the car culture that came to dominate and define the United States in the 20th century. Quite simply, Jane Holtz Kay called it as she saw it.”
As she walked from her home on Marlborough Street to work and nearly every place else, Ms. Kay interacted with the city “in a much more visual and visceral way,” her daughter Julie said. “What she experienced, and what I learned from her, is that it really is a better lifestyle. You see more and you experience more.”
At home, Ms. Kay had a “love of colors and crafts and things around her,” Julie said. “She also always had one or two cats hanging around.”
Ms. Kay “had a very strong aesthetic sense,” said Dorothea Hass, who cofounded the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston and for many years shared office space with Ms. Kay not far from Faneuil Hall. “Her apartment looked lovely. She put herself together in a very artful way in terms of her clothes and so forth.”
Haas added that Ms. Kay “was intellectual, eccentric, loyal, and always very willing to help out. And she was full of fun.”
A service has been held for Ms. Kay, who in addition to her sister and two daughters leaves four grandchildren.
During her years as a critic and author, writing in an office with others around, Ms. Kay shared her precise editing talents and would just as easily give away a sweater she thought looked better on someone else.
“It was a wonderful time, and I don’t think we appreciated it at the time, but that’s how life is,” Hass said. “You don’t think that eventually this is going to end.”
Ms. Kay was “very caught up in her identity as a writer,” Hass said, and “really believed she would never retire, that she’d be one of those little old ladies railing against the corporate world, and the tall buildings, and the hardening of the urban landscape.”