Warning flags on a pair of buildings

Preservation Howard County is likely to list both among historic properties in jeopardy

March 18, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

With the future of downtown Columbia up in the air, Howard County preservationists are moving to raise warning flags about the fate of two of the planned community's most distinctive buildings -- the former Rouse Co. headquarters and the former Exhibit Center nearby.

Though no one has proposed demolishing the two modern structures overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, they have been nominated for Preservation Howard County's "Top 10 Endangered Sites," said Mary Catherine Cochran, the group's president.

Cochran said that when the preservation group's board meets Wednesday it is likely to put the buildings on its annual listing of historic properties in jeopardy of being lost to development or neglect.

Although no more than 40 years old, the Rouse buildings deserve to be on the list, she said, because of their architectural pedigree and because of their importance to Columbia's founding four decades ago. As for why they should be considered threatened, she pointed to renewed speculation that their new corporate owner might opt to replace the lakefront structures as part of a proposal to "urbanize" the downtown with one or more high-rises.

"When you plan what the future of downtown Columbia is going to look like, that's when you decide what you want to hold onto," Cochran said. The group's board is considering declaring the buildings at risk "so people are aware of their significance, and why we think we ought to look at [them] carefully, before decisions can't be undone. Once it's gone, it's gone."

Both buildings were designed by renowned California architect Frank O. Gehry, who has earned architectural prizes and critical praise for his metal-clad, sculptured buildings such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The Exhibit Center, built in 1967, and the Rouse Co. headquarters, which opened in 1974, were designed by Gehry early in his career. Then associated with a Baltimore architectural firm, Gehry also had a hand in two other signature Columbia structures: Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Public Safety Building firehouse on Banneker Road.

Though far more conventional in appearance than Gehry's later, celebrated buildings, the four-story Rouse Co. headquarters still stands out, with its stucco and wood exterior and terraces over looking the lake. The fourth-floor ballroom once was a popular place for residents to hold weddings, parties and other celebrations.

General Growth Properties, which acquired the Rouse Co. in 2004, has its offices in the Gehry-designed building, though portions of it, including the ballroom, are no longer in regular use.

The Exhibit Center was where the Rouse Co. once placed models and renderings for the public to see what the planned community would look like. It is now occupied by offices and restaurants.

"I don't think they would necessarily be called signature buildings anywhere else," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes downtown Columbia. But she said the former headquarters "fits wonderfully into its environment, and it was terrific for the time it was built." The ballroom, in particular, is "gorgeous," she said, "and the views are beautiful."

Still, Sigaty said, people who work in the building have told her that it has "significant problems" with heating and air conditioning and other systems.

Concerns have been raised over the years about Columbia's Gehry-designed buildings. In 2002, the county proposed knocking down the firehouse to build a larger one, and the Rouse Co. said it wanted to demolish the two-story, concrete-and-stucco Exhibit Center to build an unspecified replacement.

Preservation Howard County put the Exhibit Center on its endangered list, Cochran recalled, but took it off after Rouse executives backtracked and assured the group that the building was safe as long as they controlled it.

Then, in 2004, General Growth Properties acquired Rouse and unveiled the next year a plan for transforming downtown Columbia with 5,500 housing units, 750,000 square feet of additional retail space, a new hotel and about 5 million square feet of office space.

The plan provoked spirited public debate about whether the proposal to build up downtown Columbia represented a fulfillment of founder Rouse's vision for his planned community or an undesirable urbanization of a quintessentially suburban community. County officials arranged a design charrette to review the company's plan and have since been working with community and company leaders to reach some agreement, with building height and residential density limits among the issues.

In discussing the company's plans in an August article in The Sun, Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of General Growth Properties Inc., speculated that the company headquarters might be demolished to liven up the lakefront.

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