By Ron Cassie
Illustrations by Tonwen Jones
Archival images courtesy of Columbia Archives

News & Community

City of Hope

Fifty years ago, Jim Rouse envisioned a utopian city in Columbia. Has it lived up to his dream?

had lofty ambitions. When he began putting his team together to build a city on 13,690 acres of Howard County farmland, the first person he hired was Bill Finley, who had been overseeing the National Capital Planning Commission’s revitalization efforts in Washington. Finley, in turn, hired Mort Hoppenfeld, who also worked for the national planning commission, and then Hoppenfeld recruited Bob Tennenbaum, a young, Yale University-trained urban designer who toiled under him and Finley.

“The Washington project had been one of the first genuine urban renewal efforts and then suddenly Bill and Mort were off to Baltimore [to join the Rouse Company],” Tennenbaum says. “A couple of months later, Mort calls me and wants to meet and he picks me up in Georgetown. The next thing I know, we’re driving up Route 29, which was just a two-lane road. I know nothing about the area; I’m originally from New York and couldn’t even drive.

“When we get to Route 32, Mort slows down and says, ‘Okay, look closely across both sides of the road.’ It’s nice little farms, meadows, cows, and large swaths of woods. I saw some cows with horns and thought they were bulls. Later I found out they were just cows with horns.”

Once the men reached Route 108—roughly where Tennenbaum spotted an old country post office with the designation “Columbia”—Hoppenfeld spills the beans. He tells Tennenbaum about all the property the Rouse Company had begun secretly buying there. “And Mort starts telling me about Rouse’s vision for this new city they’re going to build—racially and economically diverse, with respect for the environment and green space—and he keeps talking until he drops me off at Penn Station so I can grab a train back to D.C.,” Tennenbaum recalls. “By that point, I’m so freaking excited I can’t sit still.

“Mort told me they couldn’t pay me any more than I was making. It didn't matter. I accepted the job on the spot. I was the third person Jim Rouse hired to work on Columbia. That was 1963.”

Fifty years after its formal founding on June 21, 1967, Columbia remains one of the most remarkable modern planning achievements in the U.S. Over the past half-century, those nearly empty 14,000 acres have been transformed into a community of 100,000 residents—the second-largest city in Maryland. It is situated in the center of a public school system now regarded as one of the finest in the country, while earning acclaim as the “Best Place to Live” in the U.S., according to a Money magazine report last year that looked at more than 800 cities and towns and touted Columbia’s diversity—55 percent white, 25 percent black, 12 percent Asian, and 8 percent Latino—green space, recreational facilities, cultural amenities, and economic opportunity.

|| A boy rides through Faulkner Ridge. —Morton Tadder / Courtesy of Columbia Archives

“Shangri-La” was the Rouse Company’s aspirational code name for the Howard County project, but Rouse didn’t exactly promise a utopia or perfect city and few would suggest Columbia is either. (Managing economic diversity, one of Rouse’s goals, for example, has been a struggle in several villages of the city, where the median home price today tops $300,000.) But rather he said he was trying to develop an alternative to “the mindlessness, the irrationality, the unnecessity of sprawl and clutter as a way of accommodating the growth of the American city.”

As a developer with Christian gospel ideals, Rouse began expressing frustration as early as the 1950s that after World War II, cities were becoming destructive and impersonal, built with the automobile and commercial interests in mind, but not human flourishing.

He explained his vision as a sort of middle path through the bipolar urban decay/suburban sprawl dynamic that was unfolding in the Baltimore region and elsewhere, much to his dismay. He said he wanted to create “a garden for growing people” who were “creative, tolerant, and caring.” To that end, Rouse organized a famous 14-person workgroup—not only planners and architects, but also leaders in the fields of psychology, sociology, education, health, juvenile delinquency, transportation, religion—to inform the design process. That alone proved a revolutionary concept.

Rather than impose a traditional grid-like street system on top of the downtown topography or around the 10 village centers, Columbia’s built environment was shaped around the natural environment—the streams, brooks, and small valleys, as well as the three lakes made by the Rouse Company. Navigating the inevitably circuitous roads may drive non-Columbians a little crazy, but it makes sense if you live there and appreciate the city’s old trees, connecting walking paths, and parks.

|| Rouse lacing up for a skate on one of columbia’s lakes and leaning back at a meeting; an early sketch of plans. —Courtesy of Columbia Archives and Getty Images

“I remember hiking through the area with a small notebook, no GPS, just USGS maps, and coming across what became Symphony Woods,” Tennenbaum recalls. “I called Mort later and he called Jim, who said, ‘We are going to put a red circle around it.’ Everything was done to preserve the land and that’s why it’s still there.

That the man behind the project was a disheveled, plaid-sports-coat-wearing, middle-aged guy from the Eastern Shore, a politically active liberal Republican in the Eisenhower ’50s, is surprising only in hindsight. It wasn’t to those who knew Rouse or heard him speak publicly. Rouse had undergone a transformative experience in the 1930s as a U.S. naval officer in Hawaii, where he attended school with students of different races and backgrounds and, in one memorable moment, was helped off the track after running to exhaustion by a brown-skinned teammate. He returned to Maryland, according to biographer and friend Joshua Olsen, “with the knowledge that there was nothing natural or morally right about segregation and racial prejudice.”

He said he wanted to create “a garden for growing people” who were “creative, tolerant, and caring.”

“There is a line I use when these accomplishments get highlighted,” says Milton Matthews, president and CEO of the Columbia Association, a nonprofit service provider that also maintains the operation of the community’s green space and amenities. “It didn’t happen by happenstance. Remember not just how different Howard County was in 1966—considered one of the worst counties in Maryland—but how different the country was.”

Today, downtown Columbia is undergoing a major renovation to add density and walkability to the city’s core—a component of Rouse’s initial vision. And several village centers—Long Reach, Oakland Mills, and Hickory Ridge—are in the early stages of needed redevelopment. After a long period where Columbia felt complete, it is now growing again.

“I still remember learning about Columbia as part of a case study 40 years ago in my city and regional planning master’s program at Ohio State,” Matthews says. “It was a radical idea then. It still is.”

|| The russells with their sons DAvid (Seated) and Charlie; Barbara Russell with David and grandchildren Leah, Lyric, and Amanda. —Courtesy of the Russell family

the russells were one of the first interracial families to settle in columbia in 1967. Barbara and Charles Russell were among the first 100 people to move to Columbia. Active in community affairs for the past half-century, Barbara, who has since divorced from Charles, served on the Columbia Association board from 2000-2008.

“We came from California,” Barbara says. “My husband Charles had moved to Baltimore first and I came to join him later in September of 1966. We both worked for the Social Security Administration and our jobs brought us here, but we didn’t know where we were going to live. Charles is black and I am white. There was still an anti-miscegenation law in Maryland and the federal anti-discrimination housing laws hadn’t been passed yet. Charles initially rented a one-bedroom apartment in Northwest Baltimore, which was turning from Jewish to black then, and we’d figured I’d slip in and out in the middle of the night [laughs].

“With our son on the way, we began looking for a two-bedroom apartment. We had friends in Rockville and, one Sunday driving down that way, we saw a road that had previously been closed was now open. We drove down for a little adventure. Then, we came across the balloons, decorations, and stuff that was part of the advertising for the new Bryant Woods Apartments. There was still lots of vegetation, but we could see there was a lot going on. And everybody was so friendly. Karen Everhart, the rental agent, came by and asked, ‘Would you like to rent?’ We said, ‘Where do we sign?’ We wanted to live in a nice place with a variety of different people. We didn’t even know about Columbia or James Rouse’s vision for an inclusive place where families could raise their kids. Karen and I are still friends, by the way.

“At first we thought we’d go back to Los Angeles after two years, but we never did. We put our roots down.”

“It was a learning experience for everyone, though. There was an older white couple moving into an apartment near us and they mistook my husband for the maintenance man and asked if he’d help them move in, which he gladly did. Afterward, they thanked him profusely and offered him some money.

He just smiled: ‘No, I am a neighbor and I am happy to help.’ There were very nice people. I don’t think people could’ve lived here if they were rigid or rabid racists.

“As we were among the first people who came to Columbia (at its inception), we got to build our community from scratch—arts and cultural organizations, the village boards, all of it—which was really a unique experience. My husband served on the Wilde Lake village board and I later served on the Oakland Mills village board. My kids started in a co-op nursery school and went to school with kids from every race, religion, and creed from the beginning, and they took it all for granted.

|| Charles and charlie, Columbia’s first baby.

“I’ll tell you a funny story about Charles. Someone asked him early on if he wanted to become a Howard County volunteer firefighter. Well, he didn’t really know. He worked, we had one son at the time, and he was already on the village board. But he decided yes, he would. But then, the invitation was essentially rescinded. Howard County had never had a black volunteer firefighter, we learned. Well, now, my husband really wanted to be a volunteer firefighter and eventually he and another black man were formally invited to join. And you know what? We became best friends with those families. We went to barbecue after barbecue. It was very clear Charles had been accepted. He could only do it for a couple of years, but we stayed good friends with many of those families—it’s a tightknit community among the volunteer firefighters—for many, many years afterward.

“At first we thought we’d go back to Los Angeles after two years, but we never did. We put our roots down.

“So, one other amazing thing happened. Our son, Charlie, whom I was pregnant with when we moved to Columbia in July of 1967, was the first baby born to a Columbia family that September. People, Jim Rouse in particular, thought that was pretty symbolic—a biracial child being the first Columbia baby. Of course, we were happy for a lot of reasons.”

printmaker gail holliday makes an indelible mark on columbia’s history. In 1967, Jim Rouse hired a young printmaker named Gail Holliday from California to become his company’s artist-in-residence. “He had heard Sister Mary Corita Kent speak in Washington, D.C.,” Holliday says. “She was a very progressive, rebellious nun, who taught art at Immaculate Heart College—where I’d gone to school—and incorporated humanistic values in her work. She’d become famous for her silk-screen, pop-art posters in the ’60s and he asked if any of her students were available.

|| Gail Holliday in her Columbia art studio. —Ron Cassie

“When I met Jim Rouse, Columbia was just breaking ground and Wilde Lake was being bulldozed.”

 Between her arrival in Maryland in 1967 and the mid-’80s, Holliday created 50 vibrant, imaginative silk-screen posters—marketing tools, initially—that became iconic symbols of Columbia. One of the first, “New City,” highlighted Rouse’s vision for a different kind of urban/suburban environment, and the ensuing posters represent various Columbia neighborhoods—each incorporating nature and local themes in one form or another.

|| Holliday's early posters had a folk art aesthetic.

 “I could do what I wanted. I didn’t have to follow any rules,” Holliday says. “I like doing whimsical things, and I took inspiration from folk art and Jim Rouse’s optimistic vision of a diverse city filled with green space. My hope was to inspire people moving to this place, Columbia, which was then just being born. I wanted the posters to reflect a sense of spontaneous creativity and child-like joy.”

|| Merriweather Post Pavilion was named the second-best amphitheater in the U.S. by Billboard magazine in 2010. —A. Aubrey Bodine © Jennifer B. Bodine

Merriweather Post Pavilion unites Columbia and puts it on the map. On July 14, 1967, a crowd dressed in tuxes and evening gowns gathered in the middle of the woods at a brand new amphitheater to celebrate the beginning of a brand new city. And it was quite the spot—renowned architect Frank Gehry had designed the 19,000-seat Merriweather Post Pavilion, tucked into 40 acres of preserved land in the heart of Columbia.

The city’s creator, Jim Rouse, understood that arts and culture were vital to having a successful community. In fact, Merriweather, intended to be the summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra, which performed that night (though the fancy crowd was drenched by a heavy rainstorm), was one of the first structures he’d commissioned.

The Ephemera

“Merriweather stands for trees, open space, arts and culture, and bringing people together,” says former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman. “Jim Rouse understood that we needed that in our society and our communities.”

As the years progressed, Merriweather became an intrinsic part of the community. Along with hosting high school and college graduations, it grew to be much more than just a civic meeting place. It showcased the top acts of the day—acts who have since achieved icon status, like Janis Joplin, The Who, and Ray Charles—and the legendary moments that came with them. (Jimi Hendrix is said to have played his feedback-laden version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the first time there.)

“Before I moved here when I was 15, I knew Columbia as a place that had a decent mall and Merriweather Post Pavilion,” says Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, which now owns the concert venue. “Merriweather gave Columbia just enough cachet to be able to hold young people’s interest in this community and to give people something to do.”

But that almost came to an end in 2003, when development threatened to shutter the venue. Columbians were not going to let Merriweather go down without a fight, and Kennedy, along with a friend, started the Save Merriweather campaign.

|| Merriweather turns 50 this year.

“It surprised me that people who hadn’t been to a show there in years were vehemently joining the cause,” says Ulman, who was also part of the movement. “Merriweather has defined Columbia because it’s been a constant.”

Officials are taking steps to ensure it stays that way. Last December, ownership rights were transferred to the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission, a $19 million renovation of the amphitheater is underway, and a second stage—called Chrysalis—has been added to the complex, ensuring that even more cultural events can occur in the city’s center.

“My favorite moment at Merriweather happens at every show,” Ulman says. “At some point, I usually go down and stand at the stage, looking back. And I just look at the smiles of people having the time of their life. How do you put a price tag on that?”
—Gabriella Souza

doug duvall and richard jackson led the wildecats to 20 county titles and five state titles. Head coach Doug DuVall and assistant coach Richard Jackson coached football together at Wilde Lake High School for 36 seasons.

Doug DuVall: “I’d grown up in Howard County and I remember Jim Rouse coming to Howard High during my junior year, talking to us in the gym about his plans to build a city. I elbowed my buddy, George Boteler, ‘George, do you think this is going to happen? No way, right?’ Five years later, one summer in college, I am on a framing crew, building the houses.

“I thought maybe I’d coach two years and go on to college. Then I realized I’d found my dream job. I’ve coached sons of former players and 25 or so former players have gone into coaching, which I am most proud of.”

Richard Jackson: “I played at Morgan State for Earl Banks, graduating in 1971. I first had applied to teach in Baltimore City. By a stroke of luck, Jesse Smith, who was in charge of recruiting for Howard County schools, talked to one of my advisers and set up an interview for me with the principal at Wilde Lake Middle School, and we hit it off. A week after I signed, Baltimore City offered me a job, but it was too late. I walked across the hill to watch the start of football practice at the high school before the school year started and I ran into the athletic director. I asked if they needed any football coaches and he asked me if I knew anything about wrestling. I had wrestled at Morgan, too. I became the varsity wrestling coach and an assistant football coach on the same day.”

|| Doug Duvall, left, and Richard Jackson led the Wilde Lake High School football team to 308 wins in 36 years on the sidelines together. —Mike Morgan

DD: “We used to draw 5,000-6,000 fans to those early Wilde Lake-Howard High games. Then Oakland Mills became our rival. Same big crowds. Everybody in sports needs a rival. It was always the last game of the season. We both usually had good teams, and more than a few times, the county championship was on the line. People called it The Game. It was the battle of Route 29. Signs would read ‘Drain the Lake’ and ‘Kill the Mill.’ We pretended to hate each other, but we really didn’t. Both schools had similar kids and the teams and staffs both had black and white coaches and players. Those weren’t the colors that mattered. The colors that mattered were green and gold [Wilde Lake] and black and orange [Oakland Mills]. That was the beauty of it.”

RJ: “The coaching staff at Wilde Lake became family. We went to cookouts and birthday parties together. To Ocean City.”

DD: “The success we had helped Columbia establish its identity. When a high school team wins a county or state championship, the community rallies behind the school and takes pride in that. We saw it happen here.”

RJ: “One thing that struck me when I began teaching and coaching was the people in Columbia were driven to create decent schools. They wanted good schools not just for their kids, but because they knew that was better for everybody in the long run.”

|| Downtown Columbia's Lake Kittamaqundi has long served as a gathering place. —Michael Oberman

Columbia’s lakefront is evolving, in keeping with jim rouse's vision of urban green space.
Columbia’s beloved lakefront, which boasts the community’s iconic People Tree, a fountain, a dock, and a statue of Jim Rouse and his brother Willard—not to mention outdoor dining galore—is going through something of an evolution.

A network of more than 90 miles of multipurpose paths winds through Columbia today, but no section was more—or longer—anticipated than the paved, 1.5-mile trail encircling downtown’s Lake Kittamaqundi. Completed two and a half years ago, the $580,000 project includes 90 feet of boardwalk and a 36-foot bridge that expands access to the marshy 27-acre lake’s nature and wildlife. Equally important, it fills in a major gap in Columbia’s system of biking, jogging, and walking trails. The lake loop connects Blandair Park to the east and Howard General Hospital to the west.

|| The lake hosts music and events nearly every summer evening. —James Ferry

The lakefront has always served as both respite and gathering place for Columbians, with events or music offered nearly every summer evening. But the completion of the loop around Lake Kittamaqundi—which takes its name from an early Native-American settlement in the area—is symbolic of other major changes at the lakefront, with still more to come.

“Finishing the loop around the lake was related to Columbia’s 50th anniversary—there’s a sense of urgency in sprucing things up when something like that comes along,” says Columbia Association board chair Andrew Stack. “But it is also a key part of the redevelopment of downtown that is finally shifting into high gear.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the bike path came on the heels of the grand opening of a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market in the white stucco, Frank Gehry-designed former Rouse Company headquarters at the lakefront. The arrival of Whole Foods followed a $5 million renovation at Clyde’s, the lakefront restaurant that’s become a Columbia institution, and just preceded the opening of Haven on the Lake, a 27,000-square-foot retreat operated by the Columbia Association.

Also in 2014, the award-winning Foreman Wolf restaurant group opened a second Petit Louis Bistro (the original is in Baltimore) on the lakefront.

More recently, The Howard Hughes Corporation—downtown Columbia’s chief developer and one of the two companies that the Rouse Company split into, along with General Growth Properties—purchased the nearly vacant American City Building at the lakefront. The company also bought nearby parking space and plans to build a mixed-use retail and restaurant space on the site. At the same time, the Hughes Corporation announced it also bought One Mall North—an office building near the mall—for a combined $39 million. Those acquisitions are part of the Hughes company’s larger 30-year, $2.2 billion effort to remake downtown Columbia as the planned suburban community hits the half-century mark.

Stack says he expects to see more mixed-use development—including office, retail, apartments, and condominiums—at the lakefront. Space, he notes, can be created by burying parking garages and building up.

“I think everything is being done with the intention of preserving the look and feel of Columbia,” says Stack, a 40-year resident of Owen Brown. “It’s also in keeping with Jim Rouse’s vision of creating a dense, walkable, bikeable downtown that includes lots of green space.”

|| The Mall at Columbia opened in 1971 and is now the center of major downtown redevelopment. —Jon Bilous

After 46 years, The Mall still anchors the city’s downtown and serves as its main street.
When he envisioned Columbia’s downtown, Jim Rouse knew one thing he definitely wanted: a shopping center with enclosed walkways lined by locally owned businesses. He thought of it as a destination not just for the city’s residents but for the region as well, and wanted it to drive growth in the city’s core—he rejected the idea that the shopping center be built closer to Interstate 95.

|| The mall has remained the central shopping destination. —Columbia Archives

The Mall at Columbia opened in 1971, and Rouse immediately declared it a success. He wrote to one of his executives that it was “better than anything else the company has recently developed.” And it quickly became a community hub, as many malls were in the 1980s and ’90s.

Now 46 years later, things have changed. Most of The Mall at Columbia’s mom-and-pop shops and local department stores have been replaced by national chains; internet shopping is on the rise; and malls across the country no longer hold the distinction of being the places to hang out on a Friday night. Though this has led to the shuttering of these shopping destinations throughout the region, the Mall at Columbia remains a stalwart.

|| The mall quickly became a hub. —Columbia Archives

“People still come here just to hang out,” says Kyle Brooks, vice president and a designer at Edward Arthur Jewelers, which is the last remaining business that opened with the mall 46 years ago. “They bring their longboards and skate out back, and you’ll see families walking to dinner, waiting outside for tables, chitchatting with each other. Everyone’s just so nice to one another.”

Now, city officials are planning for a future in which the mall is at the center of major downtown redevelopment. Construction has started on a 300,000-square-foot office tower, a parking garage, and a seven- story apartment building, which will become the mall’s new neighbors.

The location in Columbia’s center that Rouse fought to place the mall may be the reason for its longevity, as other shopping destinations, like Owings Mills Mall and Rockville’s White Flint Mall, have closed. The mall even weathered a 2014 shooting that ended in three people’s deaths.

Brooks, who has worked at the mall since he was 16, also thinks that the sense of community has made it an intrinsic part of Columbian life. “People like to hold on to tradition around here,” he says. “It was a key factor in why we stayed here. It’s kept us alive, and, it’s kept the mall alive, too.”

Brad canfield is the average suburban '80’s kid, except for when he met madonna. Brad Canfield, vice president of operations at Merriweather Post Pavilion, got his start at the iconic venue when he was 12.

|| Brad Canfield started working at Merriweather when he was 12 years old. —Mike Morgan

“I was born in Columbia in 1969,” he says. “We were one of the first families. I lived in Columbia for the first 33 or 34 years of my life and started working at Merriweather when I was 12. I’d had a paper route until then. In fact, Jim Rouse and Oprah were on my paper route. I started as a seasonal employee, filled out my I-9 [employment eligibility verification], got my work permit, and started at the end of the 1982 season when the older kids started going back to college at the end of summer. I had an usher post. Pat Benatar was my first show. There’s no replacing the live aspect of music and you felt like you were one of the ‘cool kids’ if you worked at Merriweather.

“By 1984, I had moved up. I was supervising some cleanup areas. Then, in 1985, Madonna came to Merriweather for one of the first shows of the season and I ran some errands for her on my bike. She had wanted a case of Gatorade gum, which was all the rage, but nobody could find any. At least that’s the conversation I overheard. So I said I knew where I could get some and I rode my bike to the Columbia mall and picked up a case at McCrory’s, which isn’t there anymore, and pedaled as fast as I could. She was huge at the point. ‘Borderline’ was her big hit. It was a challenge carrying that case of gum back on my bike, but I was determined. Afterward, she kept calling me by my first name and everybody was making a whole deal out of it and I got a promotion.

“My parents were definitely supportive of me working at Merriweather. It got my day started early in the summer. The minimum wage was $3.35 and the most hours you could work in two weeks was 100—a $335 paycheck was always my goal.

|| Brad with his younger brother, Jeff, at Bryant Woods Elementary. —Brad Canfield

“I also worked at the mall in the off-season. Every teenager in Columbia worked at the mall. I went to Wilde Lake Middle School and Wilde Lake High School. Ed Norton was in my class. I eventually moved into a full-time position at Merriweather, operations and later bookings. I’m married with kids now—16 and 12. My youngest has expressed interested in working at Merriweather.

“I was always very aware of the Columbia vision. My folks moved to Columbia from New York. My dad taught sociology and was one of the first professors hired at Howard Community College. One of the first editors of the Columbia Flier, Jean Moon, and the first president of the Columbia Association were also on my paper route. One night in high school, a bunch of us went Christmas caroling—as an excuse to get out of the house—and one of the houses we stopped at was Jim Rouse’s. In our group, there were white, black, brown, Asian kids. We didn’t think anything of it. We’d all gone to school together since we were little. But I remember seeing a tear in his eye. That was his vision—right there in his eye.”

You May Also Like