Gathering place, Columbia symbol

March 21, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Rouse Co.'s lakefront Columbia office building - accented with trellises and terraces - has for three decades been held in fond regard by residents of the planned community.

That is 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 once was 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.

Architect Frank O. Gehry designed the building, and Rouse meticulously planned for it to be a centerpiece for Columbia. Its fate was in question last year, when the company failed to renew its 30-year lease. The matter was settled when the company bought the building for $11 million.

"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."

The building opened in 1974 as the company's new headquarters and was designed to be approachable, says 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.

Built on 6.7 acres on Columbia's coveted lakefront office space, the 127,800-square-foot building is known for its open-space design. The company wanted employees to work in an "efficient and realistic environment where it is easy to see others at work," according to a 1972 Rouse news release.

Gehry - well-known for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain - described the building as "designed from the inside out," stated the 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."

The Spear Center ballroom, once called the Kittamaqundi Room, has a panoramic view of the lake from its balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows. When the room was closed to public use in 1998, many brides, bridegrooms 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."

Casway, who has lived in Columbia since 1973, remembers crowds gathering in the ballroom for the July 4 fund-raiser.

"Seeing the fireworks from there was always one of the treats of the July Fourth holiday," he said.

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

"Over the years, I attended weddings and group parties and fund-raisers of all types," Russell said. "It's just part of the fabric of Columbia, and I was really disappointed when they closed that room for public functions."

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. "He loved the building," she said.

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