In Memoriam | William "Bill" Murtagh, First Keeper of the Register

At 95 years old, William “Bill” Murtagh, a founding father of the modern historic preservation movement in America, passed away on October 28. Our profession owes a great deal to Murtagh’s scholarship and leadership in the formation of current principles that guide many aspects of preserving our nation’s historic resources, including the process of review for historic tax credits.

Among Murtagh’s many accomplishments, he is perhaps best known as the inaugural “Keeper of the Register,” a position born out of the creation of the National Register for Historic Places that was created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, legislation to which he also contributed. It was his ethic that set the tone for the program that carries through today and allows for local communities to petition for listing historic buildings on the National Register based on the significance these places hold for them. In the federal historic tax credit program, this allows (and obliges) State Historic Preservation Offices to be the gatekeeper for the National Park Service review.

While all of our MHA preservation professionals work within the program that was shaped by this giant in the movement, for some his presence in the industry was more personal.

Bill was an icon in the American historic preservation movement and among many other accomplishments, was the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. That’s where I first met him when I worked at the National Park Service in the early 1980s. Bill was a thoughtful, articulate advocate for preservation and was a vital force at the birth of the movement in this country. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts to help put in place a practical system of protecting the architecture that reflected our history and culture. He will be missed.
— Bill MacRostie, Senior Partner
I did not know William Murtagh, yet recognize his influence on my career and writing. “Keeping Time” was on our first semester grad school library reserve reading list at the University of Texas. I checked it out and read it cover to cover along with Hosmer and Fitch. There was something accessible about Murtagh’s writing that struck a deep chord for me and I have incorporated that tone and approach into my own professional research and writing. Like many of us, I was drawn to a historic preservation career because I wanted to save old buildings. Especially in my home town of Houston, Texas which historically had been the poster child for demolition and progress. The long game is about education about the importance of place and for that to be successful, it must be accessible to everyone. Murtagh’s thoughtful, practical and no-nonsense approach gave me that foundation.
— Anna Mod, Director | Houston

We at MHA are grateful for the stewardship of William Murtagh in creating the programs we work with day in and day out, and endeavor to honor his memory by advising on historic preservation principles with the same integrity he demonstrated over his brilliant career.