In the Spotlight: William J. Murtagh

Recognizing the contributions and accomplishments of the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

I met William J. Murtagh, the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, in 1972, when I joined the National Register staff as a historian. He quickly became my mentor and friend. Outspoken and always involved, today Murtagh is a leader who continues to make a difference. He now serves on the advisory board of the statewide preservation organization in Maine, on the committee that administers the Black House Museum in Ellsworth, and as an advisor to the local historic preservation commission in Castine, near his home in Penobscot.

Murtagh grew up in Pennsylvania and cites his education in the public school system in Philadelphia as "a great leveler" in his life. After starting out at a small elementary school attended almost exclusively by white Christian children, he attended a junior high school in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. He and the students from his elementary and junior high schools were joined in their large urban high school by students from black and Italian neighborhoods. "It was very good exposure for me," Murtagh remembers. "As a result, I can't think of any ethnic group that I would feel necessarily uncomfortable with. I just thought a human being is a human being, that's it." Murtagh's experience has helped provide a sound foundation for expanding the National Register to recognize historic places that reflect the stories of all Americans. It's also a reminder of the need to redouble efforts to make sure that the historic places that reflect everyone's contributions are recognized and protected.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Murtagh earned his undergraduate degree in architecture and a doctorate in architectural history. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he was in an automobile accident and returned to graduate school to get his mind off his injuries. He had just enough money saved for one semester of graduate work, but the head of his department found him a $500 scholarship to continue. (This and the later financial support he received for his education led him to finish his Ph.D. Reminded that $500 can still make a difference to a student, he donated his own money in 1988 to establish the Keepers Preservation Education Fund. The fund provides fellowship grants nationwide to aspiring or established preservation professionals anywhere who wish to increase their professional knowledge or career potential through educational activities related to the fields of historic preservation and architectural conservation. The fund has awarded many small grants, increasing over the years from the continuing contributions of Murtagh and others, and is now administered by the Maine Community Foundation.)

As a young architectural student, Murtagh worked in Philadelphia on several occasions for Charles Peterson of the National Park Service, founder of the Historic American Buildings Survey. As a Fulbright scholar in Germany in 1954 and 1955, he investigated the origins of the Pennsylvania Dutch barns that dot the Pennsylvania countryside. That year changed his life. He listened to German people talk about the horrors of World War II and saw destroyed cities like Cologne, with its bomb-damaged cathedral. The experience provided Murtagh with searing insights into the value of preserving architectural treasures.

After his return, Murtagh was studying and teaching at Penn when he learned about the proposed Annie S. Kemmerer Museum in Bethlehem, Pa. Kemmerer had established a board for a museum that would teach future generations about the culture of the Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, where Bethlehem is located, and bequeathed a museum collection that was being stored in the warehouses of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Murtagh became the director of the museum and Historic Bethlehem, Inc., for more than two years, in 1956 and 1957. A decade later, he published a book, Moravian Architecture and Town Planning: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Other Eighteenth-Century American Settlements, from that experience. Murtagh continues to represent the United States Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, of which he is a Fellow, in a series of meetings on the Moravians held all over the world in countries with Moravian settlements. He is helping spearhead an international effort to include these settlements on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

In 1957, the Society of Architectural Historians asked Murtagh to organize a tour of Bethlehem, where he met the late Dr. Richard Hubbard Howland, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Howland hired him away from Bethlehem to be his assistant. While working at the National Trust in Washington, D.C., Murtagh was an organizer of two important conferences sponsored by the National Trust and Colonial Williamsburg in 1963 and 1967 that helped lay the groundwork for the passage and implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act. He represented the Trust on the committee that formulated conclusions from the 1963 conference. The committee's findings, A Report on Principles and Guidelines for Historic Preservation in the United States, which the Trust published in 1964, laid out principles that became part of the national preservation program with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966

It was the era of urban renewal. One of the goals of these conferences, Murtagh recalls, was to get the public and private sectors communicate about how to counteract the negative effects of urban renewal clearance programs, the construction of the interstate highway system, and other massive Federal development projects that were erasing the country's historic character and sense of place. The National Trust received many letters lamenting a growing sense of dislocation. Years later, when Murtagh asked a young man how he got interested in preservation, he answered, "When I realized that every house I ever lived in as a child had been eradicated by urban renewal or the interstate highway system."

Award Winner

The National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Murtagh's outstanding leadership by presenting him its highest honor in 1980, the Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award. Although Murtagh was still a young man, the award recognized that he had made an extraordinary lifetime achievement in the preservation of America’s heritage. The National Park Service also acknowledged his distinguished public service when he received the Department of the Interior's Distinguished Service Award.

Through his work at the National Trust, first as assistant to the president and later as director of education and of programs, Murtagh met influential people interested in historic preservation. One of them was George B. Hartzog, Jr., the director of the National Park Service. On a trip to St. Louis to plan the National Trust's annual meeting, Murtagh ran into Hartzog, who was in town to dedicate the Anheuser Busch brewery as a National Historic Landmark. Hartzog offered Murtagh the job as Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places in one of the immense 19th-century copper beer vats. Murtagh began work at the National Park Service in the new Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation at a pivotal time, just after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, and he was tasked to lead the congressionally mandated charge under the act to expand and maintain the National Register of Historic Places.

The Early Days of the National Register

One of Murtagh's first responsibilities as the Keeper of the National Register was to meet with the governor appointees of the newly constituted State historic preservation programs to foster a common understanding of purpose and gain insight into local situations and problems. Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Register was to be expanded to include properties of State and local significance. When a man from Oregon asked him how many of the 16 lighthouses on the coast of Oregon the State should nominate to the National Register, Murtagh answered. "I'm not going to tell you. I don't live in Oregon. I don't see your lighthouses. How important are they to you as an Oregonian? If they're not that important, don't submit any of them. If only one of them is important, submit one. If you feel they're all important, submit all of them. How many do you think you need to keep Oregon's sense of locality, and place, and identity?"

Murtagh recalls an early meeting in Washington, D.C., when William Pinney, then State Historic Preservation Officer from Vermont, emphasized that Vermont was a small state with an aging population on fixed incomes. "I want you to know," Murtagh recalls Pinney saying, "that what they see every day in their local villages is their national patrimony. That's all they're ever going to see." Murtagh says, "That was the best statement for the importance of local significance I've ever heard, and I still think that way."  

When I joined the National Register staff, I quickly came to appreciate how Murtagh treated his staff. He enjoyed our company and was respectful and willing to listen to and let us act on good ideas. This collegiality with his staff, state and local preservation programs, and anyone who approached him, built confidence and respect for the fledgling National Register, where he served for over a decade.

Murtagh left the National Park Service in 1979, first to direct the preservation program at Columbia University, then to launch a preservation program at the University of Maryland. After rejoining the National Trust for Historic Preservation again as a vice president for a time, he went on to the University of Hawaii to develop its historic preservation program. He counts what he learned in Hawaii, along with his stint as a Fulbright scholar, as two pivotal times in his life that enriched his experience and had a major impact on his knowledge. While at the University of Hawaii, he was able to go to Micronesia, where he found that life and what is important to the people is dramatically different. Murtagh observes that he wishes he had spent his decade in the Pacific prior to becoming Keeper of the National Register so that he could have better understood what American Indians and other cultural groups steeped in an oral culture value. He says that the reason "culture" as "in history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture" is included in the list of what makes historic places worthy of inclusion in the National Register in the National Historic Preservation Act, is because "culture means all inclusive, basically."

Keeping Time, 3rd EditionIn the 1980s, Murtagh wrote his second book, Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America. Now in its third edition, Keeping Time has become a basic text in colleges and universities. Murtagh donates royalties from the book to help support the Keepers Preservation Education Fund, which in turn has helped enrich the educational experiences of hundreds of grant recipients nationwide.

In an epilogue for the third edition, Murtagh addresses trends and the future of historic preservation. He says that preservationists lost the battle against post World War II urban renewal that totally demolished whole neighborhoods because society focuses on who lived where and what happened there. He continues to lament the lack of education about aesthetics and the importance of understanding the significance of buildings as good design or style that are reflections of their time and place.

"Teach elementary children architectural history, so that they grow up thinking about what they're looking at," Murtagh says. "When you're dealing with whole collections of buildings that together create a very specific sense of locality and place, you may not be dealing with who lived there or what happened there." Such streetscapes create "a sense of locality and place that make you know you're in Alexandria, Virginia, and not in Beacon Hill, Boston, or Santa Fe, New Mexico." 

Murtagh is proud of the way the national preservation program has evolved over the years. "Well, I think the most rewarding part about it is that you can say to somebody, 'Do you know what the National Register is?' and nine chances out of ten, they'll say, 'Of course!'"

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Submitted by DBelyea at: July 30, 2010
I had the great good fortune to meet Mr. Murtgah, quite by chance, on the porch of a home that I was touring yesterday. We had the most wonderful conversation about his work, my own Victorian lady of perpetual care and life in small towns. I only wish we had had more time. What a delightful man!

Submitted by Bobi at: February 28, 2010
Such a brilliant article about an oustanding knowledgable Gentleman of unusual vision and accomplishmewnt!!!!!

Submitted by PDuncan at: February 26, 2010
Bill Murtagh respected my views at a conference before I was in the field of historic preservation; he encouraged me. He is a delightful person and I am so glad to learn more about him. Thank you.

Submitted by KMorgan at: February 25, 2010
I had the great honor of having Mr. Murtagh be the keynote speaker at our annual state preservation conference in 2004. What a treat it was to have him address the participants about his exemplary association with the National Park Service as the first Keeper of the National Register.