BY FRED LEESON
Portland has been blessed with several architectural preservationists over the years.
Eric Ladd, who died in 2000, is often recognized as the first, with his efforts to help move the Kamm house and plans for his never-completed Ladd Colony in the 1960s. Then one can turn to architects George McMath, father of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and municipal landmark designations, and William J. Hawkins III, whose grasp of history and detail is well preserved in his architectural history books and restoration projects. Certainly one must include the late Bill Naito, who showed that old buildings could have creative new lives in Old Town and elsewhere, and the McMenamin brothers, who built a thriving, whimsical empire on beer, old buildings and history.
But none may have more lasting significance than Art DeMuro. In hardly more than 20 years in Portland, the Chicago-born preservationist/developer restored many significant landmarks for decades of continued productive use. And in the months and days before his untimely death at age 57 in September, DeMuro made financial commitments intended to bolster Oregon’s preservation community and to train generations of additional preservation experts.
His largest gift, $2.8 million, went to the University of Oregon Historic Preservation Program. It likely will go to an endowed chair in preservation. This past January, in announcing the gift, DeMuro said, “My hope is that the passion of us who engaged intimately in the field spreads to become a more common social ethic throughout our culture….Once a historic building is lost, all of that history is gone. If I can train and inspire other people to do the same thing when I am gone, there are 10 people in my place to carry on. I need to know that I did all I possibly could to support what I care about; my hope is that others will want to join in and make it a bigger effort.”
In the days before his death, DeMuro also committed to donating $750,000 to the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, to pay off outstanding debts on the foundation’s Architectural Heritage Center and to start a permanent endowment. He also committed to giving “a very sizable amount” to the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, according to its executive director, Peggy Moretti. The HPLO is a state-wide preservation advocacy organization that works in association with local preservation groups such as Portland’s Bosco-Milligan.
Cathy Galbraith, Bosco-Milligan’s executive director, said she hopes to build an endowment totaling $1 million during the next year. At a 5 percent return, that would generate $50,000 per year in operating revenue without shrinking the long-term next egg. Galbraith said the endowment would be a major step in achieving “financial sustainability” for the 25-year old Portland-based preservation foundation.
Craig Kelly, DeMuro’s long-time partner in the Venerable Group, announced the commitment to Bosco-Milligan at the organization’s annual fund-raising auction on Oct. 20. Kelly choked with emotion when he read DeMuro’s comments about expanding support for preservation. “It is still hard for me to say Art’s words,” he said later.
In some ways, DeMuro was an unlikely success in Portland. In a city often noted for its insular business networks, he was an “outsider” who arrived in 1991 after working in the family real estate business in Phoenix, Arizona. And in a city often noted for its casual behavior, DeMuro seldom appeared in public without a dark suit and tie, shined shoes and his jet-black hair, neatly styled.
After hardly more than 10 years in Portland, he was appointed to the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission in a seat designated for a “developer.” But as Galbraith noted, he was no pushover for developers. He proved to be a stickler for architectural details and preservation of as much historic fabric as possible when renovation plans came before the commission. In his final three years, serving as landmarks chair, he used gentle humor whenever possible to ease tension and make the review process more comprehensible to applicants.
DeMuro’s firm accomplished more than a dozen restoration/renovation projects in Portland and Astoria. The best known are the Ladd Carriage House, which had to be moved several blocks and then returned to its original location atop new underground parking, and four buildings linked together in Old Town’s White Stag block to become the Portland branch of the University of Oregon’s architecture school. At his death, the Venerable firm was working on plans to renovate the old Washington High School into housing and other uses – a project that DeMuro had called his most complicated ever. His business associates plan to carry on with it.
Historic preservationist Paul Falsetto, who worked on the Ladd restoration, recalls an episode in which a major structural flaw was uncovered. Work had to be stopped while engineering options were studied and costs evaluated. When the options were presented to DeMuro, Falsetto said DeMuro asked only one question: “What’s the right thing to do?”
If DeMuro’s legacy does motivate a new generation of preservationists, perhaps that’s the best question for them and all preservation activists to remember.
Fred Leeson is board president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center.