In Memoriam: William Murtagh, First “Keeper of the National Register”

An October 30 obituary in the Washington Post remembers William Murtagh, preservationist, architectural historian, author of Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, and the first person to hold one of the coolest titles in the federal government, Keeper of the National Register. He served in that capacity from 1967 to 1980 and molded what could have been a bureaucratic and high-style list of landmarks into a program that encouraged grassroots preservation efforts in communities large and small around the country.

Dr. Murtagh in Penobscot, Maine, in 2013. (Forrest MacCormack)

The register’s creation offered preservationists a new tool in the face of the bulldozer, mandating that federal projects affecting a registered site undergo a review from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which may criticize but not altogether halt a project that is funded or licensed by the U.S. government.

“This is definitely a way to combat visual and cultural pollution, which can be as depressing as air and water pollution,” Dr. Murtagh told the New York Times in 1971. Indeed, the Times reported that after the French Quarter of New Orleans was listed in the register, the Transportation Department was persuaded to alter the route of a proposed elevated highway through the neighborhood.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, which created the register, it was the responsibility of state preservation programs to submit potential historic sites for Dr. Murtagh to review. But as thousands of houses, districts and other miscellanea of the American landscape poured in, it became clear that Dr. Murtagh approached his job not so much as a judge or critic but as a cheerleader for local communities.

. . .

“He set the tone for the register, demonstrating an openness to what people and communities around the nation value,” said Carol Shull, who worked alongside Dr. Murtagh and later served as the third official keeper of the register. “I think we all followed that precept, of not thinking that we were bureaucrats in Washington telling the people, ‘We don’t really value this; why’d you send this up here?’ ”

Read more . . .

Mississippi’s earliest National Register listings, in 1969 and 1970, show the wide range in building types and styles, from the ornate Longwood, with its famous onion dome, to Jackson’s Old Capitol and New Capitol (then only 66 years old), to the red-brick “Little Red Schoolhouse” in rural Holmes County and the simple Jacinto Courthouse in the northeastern corner of the state. Mississippi’s list of National Register properties now includes buildings important in the Civil War and in Civil Rights, white churches, black churches, Jewish temples, Masonic temples, fire stations, train stations, bus stations, and the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg. It has shotgun houses, slave quarters, Greek Revival mansions, Italianate villas, Craftsman bungalows, Minimal Traditional cottages, and even Ranch houses. That’s the kind of list that William Murtagh would have approved of, I hope.

More about the National Register . . .

Categories: Historic Preservation, National Register, Preservation People/Events


5 replies

    I had the priviledge of knowing bill murtagh from the late 1960s on, though i hadn’t seen him in recent years. he was both smart and charming, and could play ‘the political game’. all usa preservationists are indebted to his work ‘for the cause’.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. His book, Keeping Time, was my introduction to the nuts and bolts of historic preservation. It is a must-have on the bookshelf of any preservationist.


  3. Bill Murtagh was my first boss. Now, decades later, I still find myself referencing things I learned from him during those first hopeful years of the preservation movement. And he always peppered his erudition with a delightful sense of humor. An exceptionally gifted man who inspired countless folks toward a greater awareness of our historic environment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ed Polk Douglas and I discussed William Murtagh’s passing in a recent email. I commented that it is interesting that he and Abbott Lowell Cummings had similar tributes written to them, full of a great deal of respect but at a somewhat distant level; since they had both outlived their colleagues and friends, the tributes were written by people a generation or two younger who knew them but did not seem to be close personally or professionally with them. Ed and Robert Gamble’s tributes here, though short, are more engaging and give a better sense of who Murtagh was than many others I have read. Compare that to the very personal tributes written to Pamela H. Simpson, Barbara G. Carson, and Orlando Ridout V. I guess in the fields of architectural history and historic preservation, they like old buildings, but, if you are a person, better not get too old.


    • I think that’s a premature assessment, given that all of those tributes you mention appeared in the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s journal Buildings and Landscapes several months or even a year after the deaths of their subject. Abbott Lowell Cummings, the first president of VAF, does have a very personal 4-page obituary by Richard Candee of Boston University in the latest Buildings and Landscapes, Spring 2018:

      I assume that if William Murtagh were a VAF member, he will probably be similarly remembered, or if not there then perhaps in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, or a similar scholarly society.

      Bottom line: live as long as you can, preservationists, and join VAF!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: