Art DeMuro, reinventionist

Few can deliver what he did: a time-honored sense of place


No dis to Phoenix, but we got Art DeMuro.

Something about our old brick and wood buildings, our once-rumpled look–and a sense of possibility that the past could be a part of Portland’s present as well as future through the restoration of old buildings. It made the Chicago native come here after years of working in America’s shiny, boxy, glass-clad New West city. Portland, where DeMuro had not spent much time before his own 1980s research showed it to be an old-shoe of a town, snagged his preservationist heart.

Unless you’re an architect or history buff or City Hall watcher, Art DeMuro is someone you likely never heard of. More than many, however, the quietly assured developer is responsible for the uptick in Portland’s Old Town, not to mention the safekeeping of the White Stag sign and other I-live-here icons Oregonians hold dear as their own. But it took DeMuro to help make sure that was so.

DeMuro died of cancer at 57 on Saturday. He lived more years than that. His vivid imprint upon Portland and a few other places in Oregon will last many lifetimes.

His projects are a greatest hits of near-lost but now celebrated Portland:  the Ladd Carriage House, which stood for more than 124 years before temporary relocation and complete refitting in its original place on Southwest Broadway; the Minnesota Hotel, built in Chinatown in 1909 but empty and decrepit in 1994, when years of reconstruction established it as a North Transit Mall office-space sparkplug of nearby redevelopment; and the White Stag Block, which inhaled $37 million in the joining of three old brick building now home of the University of Oregon at Portland, facing the Willamette River and a boon to the fortunes of Old Town.

DeMuro strayed, though, from downtown. He created Mill Pond Village in Astoria, where a contaminated plywood mill and adjacent log pond gave way to a successful mixed-use residential development. And his latest Portland foray is a stretch: For $2 million he purchased from Portland Public Schools the 1924-built, shuttered Washington High School. If his firm, the Portland-based Venerable Properties, proceeds with $20 million in planned reconstruction, the structure will feature mixed housing units and community-use space in a neighborhood hungering for both–while at the same time avoiding erasure.

Any designer and most contractors will tell you: It is easier to build something new.  Constraints of the built environment make reconstruction a weird mix of archeologic dig with engineering-on-the-fly with a morphing design that must stay true to an original aesthetic. Preservationists go wonky on the subject when they refer to an old building’s “embodied energy.”

But that’s precisely where DeMuro made his other lasting contribution: in helping Portland to go green. The embodied energy of an old building represents the sweat, craft, energy, natural resource extraction and materials required of the building’s creation in the first place. Avoiding demolition and replacement becomes an act of conservation and, even, thrift. Several of DeMuro’s structures, meanwhile, are awarded for their miserly energy footprint.

DeMuro lasted only a year as a history teacher in New Jersey. Thankfully, Phoenix failed him. His decade-long stint on the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and contribution this year of $2.8 million to the University of Oregon’s Historic Preservation Program only underscore how lucky Oregon is that he ever found his way here.

Instead of building monuments to himself, Art DeMuro gave Portlanders, especially, the rarest of gifts; a sense of place. And there’s something radically New West about that.


Click here to read the Oregonian website.