Beloved conservationist William J. Murtagh Jr. dies at 95



William J. Murtagh Jr., the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, was buried in Bay Cemetery in his beloved adopted town of Penobscot Friday.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PLYMOUTH HARBOR

PENOBSCOT — The first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places liked Maine, martinis and music, his friends said.

William J. Murtagh Jr. died Oct. 28 at the Plymouth Harbor retirement home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 95.

Murtagh is credited with elevating the profile of the National Historic Trust and helping to craft the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

About two dozen of the conservationist’s closest friends and family gathered Friday at the Bay Cemetery in Penobscot to say goodbye.

“He was the youngest older guy I knew,” said Walter Smalling of Penobscot, who had known the conservationist for 45 years. “It was always a party. It was always fun.”

That said, the Philadelphia native knew how to rally people and resources and get work done.

“Quite simply, historic preservation in America would not be what it is today without the vision, leadership and extraordinary contributions of Dr. William J. Murtagh,” stated Stephanie Meeks, president and chief executive officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in a press release. “In many ways, Dr. Murtagh gave preservation in America itself a history. His thinking and scholarship informed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which enshrined preservation into federal law.”

Murtagh had stints working for the National Trust before and after his work for the National Register of Historic Places.

Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth first met Murtagh in the late 1960s. The two were introduced when Murtagh visited the city of Hallowell, which had applied to have a 205-acre parcel recognized as a National Historic District.

Shettleworth said that’s what Murtagh will be most remembered for, the creation of the National Historic Register Program, which includes creation of the historic districts.

A state could nominate an individual property but could also nominate a large grouping of historic buildings, the historian said.

“Castine is a perfect example,” Shettleworth said.

James and Leila Day of Castine were among those who attended Murtagh’s service on Friday.

The couple said their friend saved the historic Abbott House, which today houses the Castine Historical Society.

“He heard about the former schoolhouse on the Castine Common being turned into a garage for town equipment,” said James Day.

“That spurred him into buying the building,” Day said. “It had been the high school in town and the normal school in the 1800s.”

Normal schools were schools specifically dedicated to the training of teachers.

“He’s been a great resource and he was very generous in sharing his expertise with whoever sought it,” Day said.

“He was such an important leader in the preservation movement,” Day said. “Especially when you look back at what urban renewal did in so many cities with knocking down buildings. The wonderful architecture that was lost cannot be replaced. His strong support and interest really brought to attention to what we have in our environment.”

Shettleworth explained that prior to the National Historic Register Program, most federal programs ran from the top down.

“Bill’s philosophy was broad and all encompassing, which set the tone nationally,” Shettleworth said. “That tone was to be very much in tune to what was meaningful, historically and culturally at the local and state level.

“With the National Register, the philosophy was, ‘Let’s reach out to the local and state parties to find out what’s meaningful to them,’” the historian said.

After his work for the National Register, Murtagh returned to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The trust is a privately funded nonprofit organization that works to save America’s historic places. Murtagh had worked earlier in his career for the trust, from 1958 to 1967.

Murtagh also taught at several universities, including Columbia University, the University of Florida, the University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii.

Proving that Maine really is one big small town, Murtagh and another local gem, Islesford artist and writer Ashley Bryan, were Fulbright Scholars together in Europe in the 1950s.

Smalling said he took Murtagh to an art show that Bryan also attended. Murtagh and Bryan got talking and realized their connection, Smalling said.

Brooksville seasonal resident Jill Finsen met Murtagh through Smalling.

“I really adored him,” Finsen said. “He was a total sweetheart. He was always well-dressed. He would cook and make these age-old recipes. He was a gardener.”

Finsen recalled Murtagh down on his knees at age 93, his last summer in Maine, working in his garden in Penobscot.

Smalling would visit Murtagh in Florida. Even in his 90s, he fielded calls from people all over the world seeking his help with conservation, Smalling said.

The photographer was tasked with sorting through Murtagh’s papers. He recalled sifting through a box labeled “family papers.” Smalling found assorted items, including a bunch of old catalogs. As he was tossing them, Smalling noticed a piece of nice stationery peeking out from one catalog.

It was a thank you letter from the late First Lady Jackie Kennedy thanking Murtagh for his help with conserving Lafayette Square, a public park across from the White House.

After Murtagh retired from teaching, he wrote “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America.”

Murtagh had an undergraduate degree in architecture, a master’s degree in art history and a Ph.D. in architectural history.

Murtagh has received several commendations.

He is the recipient of both the Meritorious Service Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the Secretary of the Interior, and the Louise du Pont Crown in Shield Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is a Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in London.

The International Commission on Monuments and Sites honored Murtagh in Florence, Italy, in 2014 for his “significant contributions.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.