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J. Jackson Walter; Ethics Watchdog, Preservationist

J. Jackson Walter protected history.
J. Jackson Walter protected history.
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

J. Jackson Walter, 67, a former federal ethics watchdog who made vital contributions to preserving heritage sites, including parks and shipwrecks, while running the National Trust for Historic Preservation for eight years, died July 18 at Inova Fairfax Hospital after multiple strokes.

A real estate lawyer and public administrator, Mr. Walter became the first confirmed director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in 1979. The office, which he led for three years, originated from a post-Watergate law to vet public figures for potential conflicts of interest.

He grew increasingly combative about what he told Time magazine was the Reagan administration's "anti-government rhetoric and mentality" resulting in a casual approach to following federal ethics guidelines. He had tussled with several administration figures, most prominently first lady Nancy Reagan for accepting clothing as loans and gifts from U.S. designers.

In 1984, Mr. Walter was appointed president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, established in 1949 as a congressionally chartered protector of historic properties.

He said he wanted the organization "to be a major central figure in public debates about what our cities should look like, where tall building should go, and try to put historic preservation right in the middle of those debates instead of at the end."

Among his most vital contributions was saving historic preservation tax credits, which began in 1976 to encourage developers and municipalities to reuse historic structures instead of tearing them down.

As part of its tax reform effort, the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s had threatened to eliminate the credits, considered one of the most important tools preservations have.

During his tenure, Mr. Walter achieved several victories. He oversaw the restoration and public opening of James Madison's Montpelier estate north of Charlottesville. And he succeeded in preventing proposed development on New York's Ellis Island and protecting several Civil War sites from encroaching development.

In what he called a much-overlooked need, he worked to pass a federal bill in 1988 that protected historic shipwrecks by giving states more authority to supervise salvage efforts.

He also engineered arrangements to open landmark private properties to the public, including the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., and the John D. Rockefeller estate Kykuit in Westchester County, N.Y.

To gain media attention, Mr. Walter devised the National Trust's annual list of 11 most endangered historic places. The lists have included specific sites, such as Antietam National Battlefield Park in Washington County, Md., and all of Vermont, because of an influx of big box retail stores.

Some preservationists were never satisfied with the scope of the National Trust's efforts and complained that its focus was too much on prominent structures in the East.

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