Art DeMuro leaves a legacy in (historic) brick

By Wendy Culverwell
Business Journal staff writer

Art DeMuro who turned his passion for history and architecture into a successful real estate career, died Saturday.

The cause was not released but a friend and colleague said DeMuro was diagnosed with adrenal gland cancer in July.

DeMuro, 57, leaves a deep mark on Portland’s physical environment, where he organized a string of award-winning historic preservation projects.

DeMuro, a former U.S. history teacher, formed Venerable Group Inc. in 1991, offering brokerage, property management and development services in a small eight-person firm.

Uncovering hidden gems was his passion, said Craig Kelly, long-time friend, vice president and now head of Venerable.

“Art loved Portland. He wanted to do right by it,” Kelly said.

That often meant bucking conventional wisdom. When developers wanted to exceed the maximum 75 feet development cap in Old Town/Chinatown, DeMuro resisted, arguing that the city would regret sacrificing the district’s distinct charms.

“Lots of people disagreed, but he really felt strong about it,” Kelly said.

DeMuro and Venerable tackled a string of redevelopment projects that will grace downtown for generations to come. Kelly said that was by design.

“We knew these projects would outlast us. That’s why we wanted to do the right thing,” Kelly said.

Most famously, DeMuro helmed the White Stag project, a complicated effort that united three abutting buildings into a single structure largely occupied by the University of Oregon.

Venerable rehabilitated the historic Ladd Carriage House and created Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ new corporate home in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District in the former MacForce space.

Ever the planner, DeMuro transferred control of Venerable to Kelly to ensure it would continue after his death.

Kelly said Venerable will press ahead with its current project list

• Industrial Home, 200 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Venerable intends to invest $7 million to renovate the former Salvation Army building into retail, restaurant and office space.

• Washington High School, Southeast 14th and Stark streets. Venerable is in escrow to buy the shuttered school from Portland Public Schools. Kelly said the company is considering redevelopment options for the property, including housing.

• Centennial Mills, far north end of the Pearl District. Venerable has learned the Portland Development Commission staff will recommend the city’s economic development select it and partner Harsch Investment properties to redevelop Centennial Mills, a closed mill city leaders want to turn into an entertainment themed destination.

“We’ve got a lot on our plate,” Kelly said. “But the baton will be on his stand for a while.”

DeMuro volunteered with almost every historic preservation group in the state. He chaired the Portland Landmarks Commission and served on the boards of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon board of directors, the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as the Board of Visitors for the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts.

“We are absolutely devastated,” said Peggy Moretti, executive director of the Historic Preservation League. “Art embodies everything that preservation and certainly our organization strives for. He had a passion for historic places and he couple that with great business savvy. He had tremendous vision for what could be.”

He also knew how to work with city officials to pull difficult projects through to completion, Moretti added.

“There were many challenges on projects like the White Stag Block, but that (project) is a complete triumph,” she said.

The White Stag project not only married DeMuro’s interest in preservation and education, it showed off his do-it-right approach to development.

In 2007, when workers stripped away a faux brick facade that had been added during the 1950s, they revealed the battered remnants of iron detail work that once graced its facade. The 1950s workers who had installed the brick wall had simply beaten the graceful iron pieces out of their way, destroying a piece of Portland history in the process.

DeMuro located the original molds and spent about $100,000 casting and installing a new facade.

“We could have just painted it over. But he wanted to do the right thing because he had a keen awareness of legacy. It wasn’t all about him. It was about legacy,” Kelly said.

His thoughts apparently turned to the future in January, when DeMuro established a $2.8 million bequest to the University of Oregon in his will. The money will fund historic preservation education and create an historic preservation chair — the first at a public university in the western U.S. — and helped launch an annual symposium on historic preservation.

The first was held in Portland in May.

Karen Johnson, associate dean at the UO College of Architecture and Allied Arts, attended with DeMuro. By the end of the late-May program, he was bubbling with ideas about the 2013 edition.

“His goal was to spark others to carry the torch of these old buildings,” she said. The university has not yet announced who will hold the Venerable Chair. That will take place after DeMuro’s estate is settled and the gift paid.

DeMuro played a key role for another Portland icon — Stumptown Coffee Roasters. Duane Sorenson’s coffee company was fast outgrowing its various quarters along Southeast Division when the DeMuro team quietly pitched the MacForce space at 200 S.E. Salmon St..

Matt Lounsbury, Stumptown’s operations director, remembers a discrete tour of the space, undertaken the week before MacForce announced it would close. The space answered Stumptown’s need to consolidate office, warehouse and roasting operations under a single roof. The Southeast Portland address helped cement the deal.

It selected Venerable. Stumptown had worked on build-to-suit projects before, but nothing as large as its new corporate quarters.

“They made it easy,” Lounsbury said.

Kathleen Healy, senior broker with Benco Commercial Real Estate, represented Stumptown in its dealings with the community. DeMuro left a lasting impression.

“It’s hard to lose people like that,” she said. “He’s done some really amazing projects in this city.”

DeMuro, who was divorced, is survived by five children.

Reporter Andy Giegerich contributed to this story.

See Portland Business Journal website.