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William J. Murtagh

Historical preservationist and 1950 School of Design graduate William J. Murtagh passed away at age 95 last Sunday.

Murtagh, who was born in Philadelphia in 1923, was a prominent figure in the field of historic preservation. His work to save numerous historical sites around the United States from ruin helped bring about the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The act established the National Register of Historic Places, of which Murtagh was appointed the first keeper, a position he held for thirteen years.

At Penn, Murtagh majored in architecture and helped to develop the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. He later returned to receive a master’s degree in art history in 1953 and a doctorate in architectural history in 1963. 

In his work as the keeper of the National Register, Murtagh was in charge of identifying the sites most deserving of a spot on the list, a designation that afforded each site federal grants and tax provisions. 

Murtagh accepted almost every submission to the register, validating the importance of a wide range of historical sites, from a house designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright to the first road in the country that was paved with concrete. Since 1967, a total of 1.4 million entries have been added to the register.

After stepping down as the keeper of the register, Murtagh worked as a professor at Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Hawaii. He was also the vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In a statement on Murtagh's passing, Stephanie Meeks, the president and chief executive of the National Trust, emphasized Murtagh's immense contributions to the field of historical preservation.

“On behalf of everyone at the Trust past and present, and all the many people in preservation whose lives he touched, I want to express our sadness at Dr. Murtagh’s passing and our profound gratitude for all the ways he helped make our nation a better place.”

Murtagh died in his home of complications from congestive heart failure.