Mathias J. DeVito, a former Rouse Company president who restored financial stability to the developer of Columbia, died of kidney failure July 24 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Ruxton resident was 88.
Mr. DeVito, as a young attorney, helped buy and assemble the farms that became Columbia and later worked to bring Harborplace to Baltimore. Under his tenure, the firm became a nationally ranked commercial property owner.
Born in Trenton, N.J., he was the son of Charles DeVito, a paperhanger, and his wife, Margaret. He was a 1948 graduate of Trenton Central High School and earned an English degree at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a 1956 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law. He led his class academically and was Maryland Law Review editor and a member of the Order of the Coif.
He then served as a clerk to Judge Morris A. Soper of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
In 1957 he joined the law firm of Piper & Marbury in downtown Baltimore. He also served briefly as a Maryland assistant attorney general. He rejoined the law firm and was named a partner.
While at the Piper firm, he was part of the legal team who, working for the Rouse Co., bought the Howard County farmland that would become the new city of Columbia.
“It wasn’t very original — the land acquisition was known as Project X around the office,” said Frank Timlin, his nephew.
In 1970 Columbia founder James Rouse and his executive team named Mr. DeVito senior vice president and general counsel. Mr. DeVito became Rouse Company president in 1973.
“Mathias J. DeVito was hired to bring order to chaos,” said a 1994 Sun article published when he announced his retirement as chief executive officer. “Over the 2½ decades, he was instrumental in steadying the company through various upheavals in an industry that Rouse helped shape.”
At that time, Mr. DeVito said: “We’re a company that’s done important things in America. We’ve had an impact in the lives of a lot of people, and I’m happy about that.”
The article noted that Mr. DeVito was a calming presence who preserved “Rouse from the late-1980s crackups that plagued others in a business notorious for high-flying, risk-taking personalities.”
“Mr. DeVito has said that the company learned its lesson from a scrape during the early 1970s, when Columbia, the company’s landmark development, fell into severe financial problems,” the article said. “In response, Rouse turned to its partner, now known as Cigna Corp., for additional capital, effectively lowering the company’s 50 percent ownership stake to just 15 percent.”
In 1985 Mr. DeVito led his firm’s purchase of Cigna’s stake in the unsold land in Columbia for $120 million. He then engineered the sale of the lands for $343 million and realized a $125 million profit.
Friends said that while James Rouse was the public face of projects such as Columbia and the festival marketplaces Faneuil Hall and Harborplace, Mr. DeVito worked behind the scenes to make sure these investments ran smoothly.
He worked with other community leaders in Baltimore to win a referendum for the building of Harborplace, which had been contested primarily by a group of South Baltimore residents.
Under his tenure, the Rouse Company also developed the Gallery at Harborplace and its office building, garage and hotel. It also redeveloped the old St. Louis Union Station.
“By 1975-1976 Matt was deeply engaged in navigating the Rouse Company through a series of restructuring,” said Douglas McGregor, a former Rouse chief operating officer, who lives in Asheville, N.C. “In the investor community, with financial analysts and in the financial community, Matt’s word was his bond and his integrity was never questioned.”
Mr. McGregor said that at Pioneer Square in Portland, Ore., and Riverwalk in New Orleans, the Rouse Company did not own the land.
"All of these projects were done in partnerships with cities or redevelopment authorities,” Mr. McGregor said. “They required clear and definite trust with the municipal entities and Matt was the leader who embodied that trust.”
“He was plain-spoken and unvarnished in his capacity to assess situations and people,” Mr. McGregor said. “His style was not messianic. It was measured and direct. He enjoyed universal trust and respect of the people who had direct contact with him. You knew where stood. He was more of a leader than a meddler.”
When he stepped down, Mr. DeVito told his shareholders, “I don’t know of any other company ... that has at its disposal the talent, goodness and high ideals, such as those of the people, past and present, of those who have worked within the Rouse Company.”
In a 2019 Wall Street Journal article, architect Frank Gehry stated his indebtedness to Mr. DeVito for advice to stop designing purely commercial office buildings and shopping centers.
“I was trying to influence him to use his talents,” Mr. DeVito said in the article. “I said, ‘Any architect can design office buildings. You should be designing museums, music halls. This is what you’re good at.”
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Mr. Gehry said the conversation led him to a take his career in a different direction.
Bill McCarthy, director of Baltimore’s Catholic Charities, said: “He saw potential in me, as a young lawyer and banker, I didn’t see it in myself. He helped me personally and professionally. He had a gift — a generational reach — of seeing what people were about.”
Mr. DeVito spent his summers in the Adirondacks, where he hiked trails several hours a day. He was an avid reader.
Mr. DeVito was a former trustee of the Johns Hopkins University and the old Allied Irish Bank and US Airways. He endowed a scholarship at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was also a member of the Greater Baltimore Committee and co-chair of the city’s effort to land a National Football League franchise.