Walking History


Columbia Archivist's Tour Will Focus On The Past Of Symphony Woods - And What Its Future Might Be

July 12, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Looking out over the southern end of Town Center from the ninth floor of a Little Patuxent Parkway office building, Barbara Kellner was struck by the panorama that unfolded before her.

The bird's-eye view of the surrounding green spaces, buildings, roads and parking lots sharply crystallized the layout of the area in a way that maps and at-grade photographs couldn't communicate, said the manager of the Columbia Archives.

"I wished that more people could get that perspective so they would better understand the conversation about redevelopment," said Kellner, referring to the 30-year plan for downtown submitted for county review by Columbia's owner, General Growth Properties Inc.

From that small seed sprang the idea for another in a continuing series of summer walking tours of Columbia, this newest one to focus on Symphony Woods and nearby points of interest.

While Kellner has led tours of the town's architecture and sculpture over the past four years and in June escorted sightseers around Wilde Lake, this time she will "attempt to do something a little different," she said.

The Wilde Lake resident will discuss the history of Symphony Woods, the Columbia Association-owned land that surrounds Merriweather Post Pavilion, and talk about "what Columbia was meant to be, what it is and what opportunities there are to make it better."

Cy Paumier, a retired urban planner who lives in Columbia and worked on its earliest design, will accompany Kellner on the half-mile walk. He will discuss the recently unveiled concept plans for 15-plus acres of Symphony Woods that he created pro bono for the CA.

The event has drawn 30 registrants, and there's only room for another five people to accompany the group.

Kellner said she delves into the archive's materials to present these talks, zeroing in on quotes from old memos and documents from the earliest involvement of Columbia founder James W. Rouse in building "America's City," as he liked to call it.

"When it comes to discussing Columbia, nobody ever said it better than Jim did," she said. "He had an incredible way of speaking."

Saying her presentation is rooted in historical correspondence and clippings, she pointed out that the CA-sponsored tours are not intended to be political.

"We do not politicize these events," said Kellner. "I offer them purely as an outreach activity."

She said she is "bringing the archives to residents" to demonstrate what resources are available at the organization's offices, which are across from the mall on the ground floor of the American City Building on Wincopin Circle.

The document-based collection contains more than 4,000 photos and prints, 300 sketches and numerous other items, including reports, memos, plans, ads, maps and clippings, as well as oral histories, documentaries and artifacts, she said.

The tour will begin by peering out the same windows in the offices of The Horizon Foundation, the health and wellness philanthropy where the idea was born, then quickly returning to ground level.

There, right outside the Parkview office building on the mall's ring road, is Cergy-Pontoise Plaza. The area is named for Columbia's twin sister-cities in France and is the site of a 4-foot-wide bronze commemorative medallion inlaid in concrete. It was dedicated in 1987 to mark the 20th anniversary of Columbia's founding and the 10th anniversary of the foreign exchange program that still operates today.

Cergy, a new town that was developed in the 1960s to curb urban sprawl in Paris, and nearby Pontoise, which dates to the 1500s, were adopted by Columbia in 1977, Kellner said.

"Unless you know about this program, you'd never know about the plaque," she said. "This is what I try to do - uncover little pieces of history that most of us walk right by."

Next stop will be the site of the former Children's Zoo in Symphony Woods, which operated in the summers between 1973 and 1981.

Home to llamas, yaks and "a wide variety of uncommon fowl," according to a newspaper clipping, the petting zoo was successful, drawing 23,000 visitors in its first 10 weeks.

"Here was something seldom undertaken by anyplace other than a zoo, and they made it work for quite a while," Kellner said. With its 50-cent admission, it wasn't intended to be a money-making venture, but an unusual attraction that would set Columbia apart. Declining revenues over the zoo's last few years led to its eventual demise, she said.

But the centerpiece of the tour is Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion, opened in 1967 as the summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra. That relationship ended after a couple of years, she said.

"Rouse spent time wooing institutions and businesses in order to put Columbia on the map," said Kellner of the earliest days of the planned city.

"The whole economic model relied on selling enough land to build the infrastructure and frontloading amenities to sell Columbia," she said.

"Otherwise, what if you built it and nobody came?"

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