Preservationist leaves a lasting legacy

Venerable Properties President Art DeMuro, 57, dies after short cancer fight

By Lee Fehrenbacher

Portland has lost a champion of historic preservation.

Developer Art DeMuro, president of Venerable Properties, died on Saturday after a brief battle with a rare and fast-moving form of cancer. Craig Kelly, vice president of Venerable, said DeMuro in June was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and adrenal gland cancer.

DeMuro, 57, was an enthusiastic and charismatic proponent of historic preservation. He helped save numerous landmarks throughout the state and sparked a culture of architectural conservation.

Kelly remembered a persistent DeMuro contacting him in 1992 about a property that Kelly, a broker at the time, was listing. A friendship was forged and DeMuro ultimately convinced Kelly to work with him.

“He was a great man, and is a great man,” Kelly said. “I prefer to talk in the present because he’s still here and that was why we named Venerable ‘Venerable’ — because we knew our buildings and our projects and some of our work would last beyond us, and our children and our grandchildren can say, ‘Hey, grandpa did this.'”

DeMuro’s career stemmed from a deep passion for history. In the 1980s, he was working for a real estate company in Phoenix when he began working on redevelopment of a historic automobile showroom.

“That’s when I realized it’s what I wanted to specialize in,” DeMuro said during a 2006 interview with the DJC. “Because my two degrees are in history, it’s always been the field that I enjoy, and I got occupationally channeled into real estate. So, here was this opportunity to merge both interests into one location.”

In 1991, DeMuro moved to Portland because of its large inventory of historic buildings. He created Venerable Properties, a real estate management and development firm specializing in historic preservation. Over the next 20 years, the company oversaw restoration of buildings like the Minnesota Hotel, the Ladd Carriage House and the White Stag Block.

“You would never find anybody more genuine and honest than Art DeMuro,” said Mike Greenslade, vice president of Bremik Construction, the general contractor for the White Stag project as well as many other Venerable projects. “Art was certainly a visionary. He’s the guy that would take on a project that most people — most developers — would turn and run from. And he would pour his heart and soul into it and come out the other end.”

Redevelopment of NW Portland’s White Stag Block, completed in 2008 for the University of Oregon, was one such project. Three century-old buildings were combined into one property lot, and the restoration uncovered original brick and cast-iron facades that had been covered by renovations.

The project was difficult because the property’s appraised value was far less that the $37 million spent to purchase and renovate the three buildings. Greenslade added that site access was challenging because both Naito Parkway and the Burnside Bridgehead were under construction at the time.

“So it was a nightmare,” he said. “But that’s Art — role up your sleeves, put our heads together and figure it out … it’s a terrible loss for the city of Portland.”

Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, said DeMuro saw opportunities that others didn’t, regardless of the challenge.

“Art truly believed, as the rest of us do, that historic preservation made great economic sense,” she said. “He was not the guy to approach saving a building for the sake of saving it. Projects had to pencil out for him. But he also always said if you want a project to work, you have to approach it with the goal of making it work. If you approach it with the belief that it’s too expensive (and) not going to pencil out, then it won’t.”

DeMuro also was a former chairman of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, a member of the board of directors of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon and an executive committee member at large for the Board of Visitors at the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts.

Galbraith first met DeMuro in the early 1990s while looking for warehouse space to rent. They began working together in preservation circles, and she said he made a lasting impact on Portland.

“He took the landmarks commission to another level at the city after some years of rather benign neglect on the part of the city,” Galbraith said.

DeMuro also spoke up about the threat that urban renewal can pose to historic preservation, and advocated for using the urban growth boundary to contain sprawl.

The Portland Development Commission on Monday cancelled a tour of the Centennial Mills property that was to include the developer. Venerable Properties and Harsch Investment Properties were part of a group vying to develop the old Portland waterfront mill site. The other competitor was Daniels Real Estate of Seattle.

Kelly said that Centennial Mills redevelopment would be Venerable’s most complicated and intense project to date and that, before moving forward, he would need to consult with the company’s partners.

DeMuro had his sights on the mill long ago.

“Portland had a working waterfront; that’s part of its history,” he said in 2006. “It had multiple mills on the riverfront. And I know that the mill is in decrepit condition, as many historic buildings are, but it would be a terrible loss to lose a structure of such stature. It’s number one on my list.”

DeMuro was working with Bremik Construction on redevelopment of Washington High School. Kelly said Venerable is under contract to acquire the property from Portland Public Schools. The company has finished schematic designs and is conducting initial pricing for various concepts.

DeMuro also left one final gift before his death: a $2.8 million donation in January to the University of Oregon. The money will help support the university’s historic preservation program.

“It’s wonderful that it’s part of our culture — our appreciation for the past,” DeMuro said in 2006. “It’s one of the things that makes Portland a soulful city.”

A public ceremony honoring DeMuro is scheduled for Sunday at the Portland Art Museum.

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