In a biography posted online by on the University of Maryland Archives, William J. Murtagh is called “one of the world’s leading historic preservationists” who “played a pivotal role in the establishment and evolution of the field of historic preservation for more than fifty years.” If you ask Plymouth Harbor resident Bill Murtagh, he says simply he was in the right place at the right time.
Obviously, the International Commission on Monuments and Sites takes his contributions more seriously. At their 18th General Assembly in Florence, Italy this past November, Bill Murtagh was honored by his international colleagues as a tribute to his significant contributions to their mission of conservation, protection, and enhancement of monuments, building complexes and sites.
Born in Philadelphia surrounded by historic buildings, it’s hard to imagine young Bill not being influenced by them, but that was not initially a career motivation. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania where the study of modernism and the Bauhaus movement predominated.
It was a summer job that he took with Charles Peterson, an administrator with the National Parks Service, which began to turn him in a new direction. During the Depression, Peterson had created a program called the Historic American Building Survey which provided jobs for unemployed architects. Bill’s first job was working on efforts that soon resulted in the Independence National Historic Park.
Bills work and studies were interrupted by a year-long convalescence after he sustained serious injuries in a car accident. With an undergraduate degree in architecture and enough time at a drafting table to know he didn’t want to spend a lifetime chained to it, he turned his attention to art. Continuing his studies of the next decade he completed an M.A. in Art History, and a Ph.D. in architectural history.
He also took a year to study in Bonn and Freiburg thanks to one of the first rounds of Fulbright Scholarships in 1954. His year in Europe gave him many opportunities to marvel and study the history constructed around him.
Looking at his resume, it is clear that each job he took propelled him further into the heart of the blossoming historic preservation movement. His first job at the National Historic Trust came when it consisted of only a staff of five and just 200 members. Bill was instrumental in elevating the profile of the National Trust and helping shape the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. By 1967, Bill was the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.
“The buck stopped with me,” says Bill explaining that he demanded that every application had to prove the historical and cultural significance of the structure under review.
Throughout his career and particularly after he left the National Register, Bill was a educator and writer. He was the Director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University, taught at University of Florida, University of Maryland, and the University of Hawaii. Upon his retirement he wrote Keeping Time, a universally admired comprehensive examination of the development of the historic preservation movement.
“Oh, I have met some marvelous people along the way,” Bill says with a smile. His stories are sprinkled with names like Adenauer, Dupont, and Goodrich, and tales of mansions with full staffs of valets, footmen, and butlers (all the rage now in these Downton Abbey days.)
How on earth did Bill Murtagh land in Plymouth Harbor? In fact it had something to do with B.F. Goodrich’s granddaughter, an attorney, and a lecture. The attorney for the Goodrich family had retired to Plymouth Harbor and invited Bill to stop here for a lecture on his way to Cuba. The invitation, and its acceptance, came two or three years running and Bill came to enjoy the company of many residents, the lovely surroundings, and the food. In an aside Bill adds that in those days, over eleven years ago, the food was not as spectacular as it is today!
For many years he has spent his summers in beautiful Penobscot, Maine and enjoys the spectacular winters in Sarasota. Never ceasing to educate and lecture on the topics he loves so much, Bill is generous with his time and seemingly unceasing energy. If you missed his recent lecture about Glenbeigh Castle in Ireland, just ask him. You’ll love the stories.