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William J. Murtagh, Lion of Historic Preservation, Dies at 95

William J. Murtagh, the first designated “keeper” of the National Register of Historic Places and a paladin among preservationists, died Oct. 28 in a retirement community in Sarasota, Florida. He was 95.

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Sam Roberts
, New York Times

William J. Murtagh, the first designated “keeper” of the National Register of Historic Places and a paladin among preservationists, died Oct. 28 in a retirement community in Sarasota, Florida. He was 95.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his nephew, Dean Murtagh.

Hoping to reverse what he called “the visual trashing of America” inflicted by urban renewal bulldozers and interstate highway billboards, Murtagh galvanized architects, historians, preservationists, archaeologists, local civic leaders and an informed public to consider places worth saving. He was driven, he said, by a concern “for what we might call the cultural ecology of the country.”

For more than five decades, Murtagh predominated in the field of preservation. A vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he taught and started preservation programs at Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii and wrote the discipline’s first leading textbook, “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America,” originally published in 1988.

Murtagh was the first steward of the National Register, the official federal list, established in 1966, of historic places worthy of preservation. He held that post from 1967 to 1979.

The sites on the register — from districts to structures to objects — are recommended by state and local officials and now number 93,000. Their historical value must be taken into account by federal agencies planning construction or other measures that might alter the sites.

Unless the federal government is involved in financing or licensing the property, owners can legally demolish the sites, but they may be eligible for tax breaks and grants for preserving them.

“In many ways, Dr. Murtagh gave preservation in America itself a history,” Stephanie Meeks, president and chief executive of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement. Calling him “a colossus in our field,” she said “his leadership and scholarship guided the legislative origins and growth of historic preservation in America in the 20th century.”

William John Murtagh was born May 2, 1923, in Philadelphia. His father owned butcher shops, and his mother was a homemaker.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1950, he worked for the architect and preservationist Charles E. Peterson on developing Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

Once he recuperated from a serious automobile accident, he returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a master’s degree in art history and a doctorate in architectural history. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the Universities of Bonn and Freiburg in Germany to study local influences there on Pennsylvania Dutch architecture. His appreciation for preservation was further heightened when he visited German cities ravaged in World War II.

His expertise in Moravian architecture, rooted in eastern Germany, and his tenure directing the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, brought him national attention.

In 1958, Murtagh was hired by Richard Hubbard Howland, the first president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was chartered by Congress in 1949. He was soon promoted to director of education programs.

Murtagh was a founding member of the U.S. Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, a nongovernmental organization, and helped draft the 1964 report that led to the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which created the National Register.

Murtagh was appointed its keeper in 1967 by George Hartzog, the director of the National Park Service. (Hartzog offered him the job as the two were standing in an oversize 19th-century copper beer vat at the dedication of a St. Louis brewery as a National Historic Landmark.) He returned to the National Trust in the early 1980s as vice president of preservation services.

His marriage to Mary Louise Morton ended in divorce. His nephews Dean and Reed Murtagh are his closest survivors. Murtagh expanded the park service’s mission from conserving land to preserving places. And he broadened its constituency from, as he put it in a National Historic Preservation Program oral history in the Cornell University Library, a narrow base of “rich, white, WASP, American women with their historians or curators in tow.”

Murtagh also sought to incorporate preservation into urban planning and differentiate between landmarking an individual building and protecting a broader area, such as a district, neighborhood or battlefield.

He was the recipient of several distinguished awards, and in 1988 established the Keepers Preservation Education Fund to provide scholarships in preservation. (They are now administered by the Maine Community Foundation; he had a home in Castine, Maine.)

Murtagh preferred a bottom-up preservation agenda driven by local priorities, and he would emphasize it when state and local officials sought his advice on sites for the National Register.

In the oral history, he recalled one official asking: “'We have 16 lighthouses on the Oregon coast. How many do we nominate to the National Register?’ And I developed the stock answer by saying, ‘How many of them do you think you need to retain your sense of locality and place? You tell me. I’m not going to tell you.'”

“Always think of the programs in terms of local significance,” Murtagh said. “You know, who’s going to look after the hot-dog stands of America?”

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