William J. Murtagh, one of the world's leading historic preservationists, played a pivotal role in the establishment and evolution of the field of historic preservation for more than fifty years. Considered one of the "founding fathers" of the preservation movement, Murtagh helped shape the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Later, as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, he was responsible for the creation of that respected federal institution, establishing standards and practices that continue to safeguard the architectural heritage of the United States. A prolific lecturer, writer, and speaker, Murtagh inspired generations of preservationists and contributed to the professionalization of the field through his involvement with a number of university preservation programs. He is credited with laying the foundation of the preservation movement in the United States by giving it direction, establishing legal precedents, endorsing legislation on preservation, and, above all, raising the consciousness of the nation about the cultural and aesthetic benefits of preservation.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 2, 1923 Murtagh studied at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a B.A. in architecture, a M.A. in art history, and a Ph.D. in architectural history (1963). In 1954-1955 he attended the University of Bonn and the University of Freiburg in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship where he studied German influences on the architecture of the Pennsylvania Dutch. While completing his Ph.D., Murtagh served as a draftsman for several architectural firms. His interest in preservation led him to work as a supervising architect for the National Park Service at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. In 1956, he assumed the position of Executive Director of the Annie S. Kemerer Museum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. During this time he also served as Executive Secretary of Historic Bethlehem, Inc., an organization that guided historic preservation efforts in the city.
Murtagh worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 1958 to 1967, where he served first as assistant to the President and then as the Director of Education and Programs. At the National Trust, he was responsible for training programs, seminars, and conferences around the country and was instrumental in elevating the profile of the Trust during these years. In 1967, Murtagh became the first Keeper of the National Register. During his thirteen-year tenure he was responsible for establishing and developing standards and guidelines for historic structures, creating a national network for the identification and survey of state historic resources, and administering grant programs that assisted rehabilitation and restoration projects across the country.
In 1979, Murtagh became Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University. Two years later, he returned to the National Trust as Vice President of Preservation Services. After officially retiring in 1985, Murtagh continued to pursue an active teaching and lecture schedule. He was the first occupant of the Beinecke-Reeves Chair in Architectural Preservation at the University of Florida in 1995 and was involved with the historic preservation program at the University of Maryland from 1984 to 1996. Murtagh also taught at the University of Hawaii as a visiting professor from 1986 to 1998, during which time he also served as the director of the Pacific Preservation Consortium. Through this organization, he provided assistance to other island cultures, such as Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia, with historic preservation needs, assessments, and training.
Over the course of his career, Murtagh was involved with a variety of historic preservation organizations and boards. He served as President of the Victorian Society of America from 1974 to 1980, revitalizing membership in that organization over the course of his term. He has been involved with the Preservation Institute: Nantucket since 1972 as a member of their Board of Directors. In the 1980s he served as member of the Governor's Consulting Committee on the National Register for the state of Maryland. Murtagh is also a member and former executive committee member of the U. S. Committee of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), representing the U. S. abroad at conferences and on study tours.
After Murtagh's retirement, he completed Keeping Time, a basic text in the field of historic preservation which provides a comprehensive examination of the preservation movement. The royalties from this book support a non-profit organization, the Keeper's Preservation Education Fund, which provides funding to historic preservation students to further their education. Another of Murtagh's publications is Moravian Architecture and Town Planning (1967, republished 1998). He was a contributor to Historic Preservation Today (1966) and Historic Preservation Tomorrow (1967). Murtagh also published a number of articles in journals including Historic Preservation, American Institute of Architects Journal,Society of Architectural Historians Journal, and Antiques Magazine. He has received the Meritorious Service Award from the Secretary of the Interior, the Distinguished Service Award from the Secretary of the Interior, and the Louise Dupont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is a Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in London, England, as well as a fellow to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
William J. Murtagh currently resides in Florida and Maine and continues to write and lecture on the subject of historic preservation.