Biography of Rouse is first in print

Comprehensive look at Columbia founder called well-researched

Howard County

December 05, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Despite being a well-known social architect, developer James W. Rouse - the founder of Columbia - had never had his life's story told in print.

But seven years after his death, the first biography of the businessman - Better Places, Better Lives by Joshua Olsen - tells a comprehensive story of the revered man, from his childhood in Easton to his death in 1996 at age 81.

Olsen said the approach he took writing the book was to be "sympathetic but not uncritical."

"I have unending respect for Rouse," said Olsen, a Laurel native who lives in Washington. "But that being said, he wasn't perfect. Not everything he did was perfect, and there's no sense in marring history by not pointing out things that could have been done better."

The book will not be released until spring by the Urban Land Institute in Washington. But 100 copies of the book will be on sale for $33 (regular price will be $34.95) at a book signing at the Columbia Archives at 10 a.m. tomorrow, when Olsen is scheduled to speak about some of his research.

In the 371-page book, plus endnotes, Olsen illustrates the breadth of Rouse's work and the people he influenced by noting in the introduction the range of people who attended his memorial service in 1996 - Cabinet officials, U.S. senators, a major league baseball player and suburban residents, as well as people from Sandtown, one of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, which Rouse helped rehabilitate.

Olsen focuses primarily on Rouse's projects, highlighted by the 36-year-old planned community of Columbia, his most prized development. He designed it as a place where anyone could live, regardless of race or economic background - a bold vision coming on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The author also explains some of the more comic aspects of Columbia's debut, such as when a downpour soured a celebration at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion in summer 1967, causing dignitaries and the public to trek through a forest filled with mud after the concert - the area was recently a construction site - and discover their cars were also trapped in the muck.

Olsen wrote that no one thought to get tents for the occasion, and afterward Rouse declared that a second concert should be held, "and this time get some tents."

He also writes of Rouse developments that caused unforeseen problems, such as his shopping malls that helped cause the demise of older downtown retail districts.

But Olsen pointed out that years after Rouse built his first mall - Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie in 1958, the first enclosed shopping mall on the East Coast - he pioneered a remedy to urban business decay by developing Baltimore's Harborplace in 1980. Rouse's other urban centers include Boston's Faneuil Hall Market and Philadelphia's Gallery at Market East.

"I think that the fact that later in his career Rouse helped reverse this situation is pretty important," Olsen said.

Rouse's work has been recognized by the nation's top officials.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded Rouse the Medal of Freedom and said that if the nation had more developers like Rouse, "we would have lower crime rates, fewer gangs, less drugs. Our children would have a better future. Our cities would be delightful places to live."

Olsen also delves into Rouse's personal life, a usually untouched territory, revealing details about the divorce from his first wife that are not widely known.

He writes that Rouse explained that the failure of his 32-year marriage to Elizabeth Winstead was because of a "deep personal incompatibility - my inability to meet her needs and her inability to live with that gap."

The author explained that dedication to Columbia appeared to take a toll on the couple's marriage, as he worked 14-hour days and on evenings and Saturdays. He wrote that Elizabeth Rouse once jokingly referred to Columbia as "Jim's mistress," and then the couple's daughter Robin responded, "No, Columbia is Daddy's wife - you are his mistress."

Olsen wrote that after the couple's divorce in 1973, "it seemed like Columbia, and all of his other work, was now Rouse's only love."

That year, Rouse met Myrtle Patricia "Patty" Traugott in a tennis game with friends - she was the fourth player in a game of doubles. The couple later married, and Patty Rouse still lives in their home on the waterfront of Columbia's Wilde Lake village.

Larry Madaras, a Howard Community College history professor who studies Columbia, said those details can be attributed to Olsen's persistent research, allowing him to get a "phenomenal story."

"He got to a part of the story that never really got out," Madaras said. " ... Rouse was really, really cagey in the way he kept his personal affairs separate."

The book stems from Olsen's master's thesis about Rouse while Olsen was on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Bristol in England. Madaras said the work is so rich in detail that it could be a thesis for a doctorate.

"It's that good," Madaras said.

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