Columbia Archives given early Rouse writings on planned town

Developer had held writings since 1960s

February 24, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Boxes crammed with big ideas, lofty goals and high hopes were carted across a parking lot from the Howard Hughes Corp. to the Columbia Archives on Thursday, a move that will allow public access to the earliest behind-the-scenes planning for Columbia.

Known as "the Green Books," the 32 bound volumes contain seven years' worth of original correspondence, notes, reports and photos. Some of the documents date to 1963, a time when James W. Rouse's vision for a planned city was still unfolding with seemingly limitless possibilities.

It was a short trip but a long journey to finally place these documents in the hands of Columbians and others who study the town's development. The volumes could also add context to discussion of Columbia's year-old master plan for redevelopment.

"There are some things that they were doing back then that you look at now and say, 'Whoa!'" said Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives, which will review the documents for a month before making them available to the public.

The existence of the books was no secret to the city's archivists, who became aware of them shortly after the archives first formed as an independent nonprofit organization in 1983, and they have long sought to add them to the collection, she said.

"Those experts were concurrently looking at the land and working to build a sense of community, so these documents are about determining the social goals of Columbia, not its physical plan," said Kellner, who has served as director of the archives since the Columbia Association took its reins in 1992. "They were asking, 'How do you make a city work?'"

The books will share the stage with many equally significant items from Columbia's early years and the life of Rouse. Holdings include a wide range of formats, with personal papers and organizational records, visual images and graphic materials, audiovisual recordings, and numerous books, reports, local newspapers and artifacts.

Since the newly released documents have always been considered company property, and the Rouse Co. and its successors have all been private corporations, there has never been a way to compel their donation, Kellner said.

"These books were always carefully guarded," said Barb Nicklas, vice president of marketing at Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer and a spinoff of General Growth Properties Inc. "They were kept under lock and key and had to be signed out."

But a recent decision to digitize the books' pages and store their information on discs presented their owners with the opportunity to give the originals away, said Nicklas, who described the volumes as "museum-quality pieces … in need of a home."

The books, which resemble a set of encyclopedias down to the gold lettering on their spines, are divided into such categories as Cultural Development, Communications, Libraries, Health and Religion. The papers, bound into the buckram-covered, 8½-by-11-inch volumes, are neither brittle nor yellow because the books were kept tightly closed when not in use, reducing exposure to air, Kellner said.

But some of the documents comprise an anti-history of sorts, since numerous grand ideas for projects that were exchanged back and forth in letters never came to fruition.

In the first volume, titled Cultural Development, Kathryn Bloom, then director of the arts and humanities branch of the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in a 1965 letter, "It might be possible for the federal government to build a cultural center [in Columbia] for adults and children outside of the public school system."

Bloom wrote that the new town's location between Baltimore and Washington was highly conducive to such a project, which prompted Rouse to jot on her letter in nearly illegible handwriting, "Very interesting possibilities" and to sign it simply "R."

Other proposals called for a School of Architecture, an Institute of Photographic Arts, a junior college and a four-year college, a branch of the Maryland Institute College of Art, a craft bazaar and a re-creation of the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, on the shore of Lake Kittamaqundi.

Mort Hoppenfeld, chief planner for the Rouse Co., rhapsodized at length in 1965 about Tivoli, praising its walkways, bridges, trees, gardens, fountains and sculptures, and foreseeing such elements along Columbia's lakefront.

"There could be a Japanese tea garden complete with a tea house and restaurant … a Chinese pagoda, or perhaps one from Thailand or Siam serving oriental food. There would be a Ferris wheel, carousel and pedal boats … but not quaint or thematic," he wrote, wanting to steer clear of a Disneylike amusement park atmosphere.

Charles Mark, then a consultant to the National Council on Arts, reminded others working on social goals that Columbia "was not planned as a super-suburb, but as a complete city of 110,000 people with a full range of industrial, commercial, educational and cultural facilities."

One element of Mark's lengthy wish list for the city was "to have some sort of a private school … to keep the Howard County Board of Education on its toes."

Learning about what was and wasn't accomplished back then relates to the concept of "understanding from whence you came," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district includes the Town Center and who headed the council when it unanimously approved the master plan in February 2010.

"By seeing more clearly into the imaginings of the time we can put ourselves in the continuum and imagine what could be accomplished now," she said. "Ideas that were pooh-poohed in the '60s could come to pass.

"And these documents are primary sources — you've got to love that," Sigaty said.

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