Art DeMuro, who revitalized part of Old Town, was most of all a preservationist
By Elliot Njus
Sometime in the middle of the past decade, Art DeMuro sent his brothers a progression of photos showing a wall as heavy equipment tore away layers of red brick.
The backhoe made a mess of the wall, said DeMuro’s brother Gene, until, in the last photo, it was revealed a long-hidden Corinthian column.
“This is why I love what I do,” DeMuro wrote.
DeMuro, a Portland developer and preservationist, whose firm redeveloped the White Stag Block in Old Town and a number of other historical properties, died Saturday after a battle with cancer. He was 57.
The company he founded, Venerable Properties, is currently considering redevelopment plans for the closed Washington High School in Portland. It is also part of a team recommended by the Portland Development Commission staff to redevelop the Centennial Mills property in the Pearl District.
DeMuro was born in 1955 in Villa Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His family operated a defense-manufacturing business in the city and moved to be closer to a more profitable company outpost in Phoenix when DeMuro was in high school.
DeMuro had no formal education in real estate or development. Instead, his passion was history, and he majored in history at the University of Notre Dame with the intention of becoming a teacher.
He earned a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina and took a teaching job in New Jersey that lasted all of one school year. Then he moved back to Phoenix to work at the family business.
“He just didn’t think that was where he wanted to end up,” said Paul Gillespie of Scottsdale, Ariz., DeMuro’s roommate for four years at Notre Dame.
In Phoenix, DeMuro and two of his brothers started a real estate development company, in part to manage their father’s real estate holdings. They worked together on developments until the late 1980s, when the economy soured.
“He had this kind of epiphany that he can deal with historic stuff, which he loved, and with real estate, which he liked too,” said Craig Kelly, who would become DeMuro’s business partner in Portland.
The sharp, fast-moving researcher-turned-developer was uninterested in the contemporary architecture of Phoenix, and he started looking for a place that better fit his interests. He had never been to Portland, but with its historic downtown and an opportunity to succeed financially, it seemed to fit the bill.
“Art was a research bug. He just researched everything,” said Gene DeMuro. “He found Portland was just a fertile ground for him.”
He arrived in 1991 and founded Venerable Properties. The company was slow to start, and he took on some very small projects to get traction.
“Art loved a challenge,” Kelly said. “There are easier ways to make money than doing historic redevelopment. It’s really complicated, and your head can get pretty flat banging it on the wall.”
But by 1994 he started to add staff, including Kelly, who would become the company’s vice president and a broker, as well as a close friend to DeMuro.
DeMuro was particularly proud of the work on the White Stag block in Portland, a three-building urban campus for the University of Oregon.
The company also helped turn a polluted former plywood mill in Astoria, once one of the city’s biggest employers before it closed in 1989, into a housing development in 2006. The mill, a co-op, had nearly 140 owners and several liens for back taxes and utilities.
“Art, with all his leadership, put all the members together as a team and turned this blighted area into one of the brightest spots in Clatsop County,” said Willis Van Dusen, the mayor of Astoria. “It’s a true redevelopment from a former mill pond.”
DeMuro served for 10 years on the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. In February, he donated $2.8 million to the University of Oregon’s Historic Preservation Program.
“The teacher never left Art,” Kelly said. “He always viewed every event as, ‘What can I learn from it?’ or, ‘How can I help someone else learn from it?'”
DeMuro is survived by two brothers, Michael and Gene; and five children, Jenna, Natalya, Renata, Salvatore and Lorenzo. He was preceded in death by a brother, Sam Jr.
A public memorial was held Sunday afternoon in Portland.
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