News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, November 8, 2018
The man who saved the Abbott School: Bill Murtagh retrospective

Bill Murtagh

Bill Murtagh.

Photo courtesy of Leila and Jim Day

by Sharon Bray

When the first official keeper of the National Register of Historic Places was sent to Castine to approve the project to move Perkins House to its present location beside the Wilson Museum, William “Bill” Murtagh hadn’t a clue about the history-filled town. He told an interviewer for Castine Historical Society he thought he “was driving off the end of the earth.”

His room in the as-yet-to-be-renovated Castine Inn did little to improve the impression. Nonetheless, according to his friends Leila and Jim Day, Murtagh fell in love with Castine. He recounted that process in an interview recorded by Castine Historical Society a few years ago.

When he first saw Main Street, Murtagh said, “I just couldn’t believe this town.”

As an officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Murtagh was in charge of the program that designated buildings and communities for the Register from 1967 to 1979. As “keeper,” he generally approved whatever his staff recommended, maintaining a focus on local control. He also handled grant funding, so he thought he should take a look at the Perkins house project. When he asked why move the house, Murtagh claims that Earl Shettleworth, then director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, told him plans for a highway threatened the house. Murtagh said Shettleworth later denied ever saying so.

In 1968-69 Hoyt Hutchins of Penobscot managed moving and restoring the 1765 house from Court Street to the grounds of Castine’s Wilson Museum. The house is on the National Register as are a significant number of other area houses and the village of Castine.

Former chair of Castine’s Historic Preservation Commission Ann Miller described Murtagh as always helpful. “We could ask him anything. … Whenever people came in for a permit I thought might be difficult, I’d call Bill, and he’d come in and help.” Besides advising and educating commission members, he would work with property owners to find better solutions for renovations, Miller said.

Jim and Leila Day moved to Castine in the 1970s and became friends with Murtagh. During the summers, Murtagh would visit in their garden Sundays after he attended the Episcopal church. Mae O’Neil, co-owner of the Abbott School, was also a family friend.

Last time the Days saw Murtagh earlier this year Leila said “… at his assisted living apartment in Florida, he showed us a framed drawing of the Abbott School with his text on the back of it [hung on his wall].”

Murtagh had written on the 1974 drawing that he “… converted the Abbott School into two three-bedroom units in 1972, when I learned that the Selectmen of Castine were considering gutting the first floor to park the town dump truck. The school had been empty for 10-15 years when Mae O’Neil and I bought it. It was in near derelict condition at the time. (Purchase price $10,000.)”

In a recorded interview, Murtagh described the condition of the unoccupied building with a leaking cupola and an inch of ice on the second floor. Leaving the ground floor as open space, he had contractors build a double partition on the second floor to provide a sound buffer, space for closets and for installation of a small wood-burning stove. Tables from its chemistry lab became kitchen cabinets.

Murtagh said he sometimes rented his side to Mary Nutting, widow of a former Maine Maritime Academy president. According to the Days, both owners spent short vacations in Castine. And in 1984 they sold the school to new owners who had “sailed into town.”

When the historical society was searching for a home in the 1990s they bought the Abbott School from a private party who owned it after Bill Murtagh. According to Jim Day, Murtagh served on the CHS advisory board and helped with plans to convert the duplex to its present use.

After moving out of the Abbott School, Murtagh and several friends from out of state bought small houses on Northern Bay in Penobscot.

Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Murtagh, age 95, died October 28 in Florida. Obituaries said it was his request to be buried in Penobscot near his summer home.

Editor’s note: this article has been updated to correct the error that the Castine Historical Society bought the Abbott School from a private party who owned it after Bill Murtagh and not from the town of Castine. We apologize for the error.