Rouse building `a special place' for Columbians

Community events part of headquarters' history

October 04, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The terraced lakefront Columbia office building -- now the subject of a legal battle between the Rouse Co. and its landlord -- has always been held in fond regard by residents of the planned community.

That's exactly what Rouse wanted. In a 1973 memo to employees, the company said it planned to create a distinguished headquarters in Columbia that would "reinforce the company's reputation for taste, flair and imagination, as well as concern for people" in the new community it was developing.

The fourth-floor ballroom was once a gathering place for the fledging community, where residents held proms, weddings and other celebrations. It was the prime spot to watch Fourth of July fireworks, with a grand view of Lake Kittamaqundi.

"It really does occupy a special place in the hearts of the pioneers, people who have been here a long time," said Barbara Russell, one of Columbia's first residents. "I remember many significant events along the way that took place there."

Thirty years later, the building designed by architect Frank O. Gehry, and which Rouse meticulously planned as a centerpiece for Columbia, is the subject of a legal battle that could evict the visionary tenant.

After Rouse failed to renew the lease by the Dec. 31 deadline last year-- apparently out of neglect, court documents show -- a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge ruled that the lease will be terminated March 31. The company is appealing the decision. American Real Estate Limited Partnership of Mount Kisco, N.Y., is seeking a new tenant.

Kara Calder, president and chief executive officer of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday that she felt the dispute was "a business matter between the Rouse Co. and the owners of the building." She said Rouse contributed significantly to the community -- not just by developing property, but creating a community.

"I think regardless of what happens in the future, in terms of their corporate presence in the community, I think that was a priceless contribution to have made," she said.

Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said, "We've been in communication with the company but there really isn't a whole lot we can do at this point."

She said the department is staying in touch with the company and with Howard County economic development officials.

A Rouse spokesman said yesterday that the company would not comment because the matter is in litigation. Rouse's lawyer, Jonathan E. Claiborne, also declined to comment. "I doubt [American Real Estate] lawyers are commenting either because both sides" have agreed not to discuss the matter, he said.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey and Richard W. Story, chief executive of the county's Economic Development Authority, could not be reached for comment. They left yesterday for a 12-day economic development tour of Europe.

In court documents, Rouse says that it intended to renew the contract. But even after one of its lawyers pointed out in 2001 that the lease needed to be renewed, it never happened, according to the documents. The company's annual report for 2002 -- which was filed this year with the Securities and Exchange Commission on March 26 -- also shows Rouse knew the lease would expire soon.

Jeffrey N. Burger, a clerk for Judge John F. Fader II, who ruled on the case, said Fader had "no idea" why the complaint was filed in Baltimore County, and the issue never came up in the proceedings.

American Real Estate and its lawyer did not return phone calls this week. In its complaint, the landlord said Rouse "regularly conducts business in Baltimore County."

The Rouse building, which opened in 1974 as the company's new headquarters, was designed to be approachable, according to the 1973 memo. "Although the interior space should not be Spartan or cheap in its appearance or feeling, neither should it be or even have the appearance of being lavish or extravagantly self-indulgent, as is the case with so many of the corporate headquarters buildings we see today," the memo states.

The ballroom has a panoramic view of the lake from its balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows. When the room was closed to the public in 1998, many brides and party organizers wondered where they would hold their events.

"There was a time when that was the only real room that could be rented out in Columbia for a quality affair," said Jerrold Casway, coordinator of Howard Community College's James W. Rouse Scholars Program. "And the backup to reserve that room was always substantial."

The public still has a chance to see the room once a year during the Columbia Foundation's annual fund-raiser.

Patty Rouse, widow of Columbia founder James W. Rouse, said she participated in Fourth of July and other celebrations at the building. The office space was dear to her husband, she said. "He loved the building," she said. "I hope it all works out that they stay here."

The building is also recognized for its architectural significance. Gehry -- well-known for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain -- described the building as "designed from the inside out," said a 1972 Rouse news release.

The four-story building has won accolades in the architectural community. In 1976, the American Institute of Architects gave the building its award of honor. The same year, the American Association of Nurserymen awarded the building its certificate of merit for environmental improvement.

"It really is one of Columbia's chief landmarks," Russell said. "To this day, it has a design that is unique, whether you like it or whether you don't like it."

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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