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.
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.
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“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?’ ”
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 . . .