Rouse aimed to 'soft pedal' Columbia announcement

Archival documents shed light on rollout a half-century ago

November 02, 2013|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

James W. Rouse had a big idea that he announced on Oct. 30, 1963: a community in Howard County built on more than 14,000 acres, a swath nearly the size of Manhattan that amounted to about a tenth of the county's land.

So after Rouse put out the word in a four-page news release, his key investor wanted to know: Why give it such a modest public introduction?

Letters on file at the Columbia Archives show that soon after Rouse made public that his company owned the land and planned to create "the finest community … in the entire United States," he received a one-page letter from Bruce P. Hayden, a second vice president with the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., Rouse's partner in Howard Research and Development Inc., the company that owned the land and had lent something between $18 million and $25 million to buy the property.

Hayden wanted to know why Rouse had not emphasized the grand ambition of the project.

In a three-page response dated Nov. 5, 1963, Rouse said that considering the size of the enterprise, he was less interested in gaining big publicity than in keeping the locals calm.

"This press release was directed at a very particular objective and that was to do everything possible to abate fear and stimulate hope among the people in Howard County," Rouse wrote. "At this particular time we did not seek nor even care about widespread publicity of what we are doing.

"As a matter of fact, we were inclined to soft pedal a bit the possible size of the new community, and we avoided any mention of words such as "new town" or "new city." We even avoided mention of industrial or commercial aspects of the new community."

Rouse also noted that he emphasized the preservation of natural resources and open spaces, and that the people behind it, including Rouse himself, were local. He noted that during the months he spent buying the farm property — through an array of straw companies — rumors were flying around Howard County about mysterious land dealings involving "Russian money," "West German money" and "Texas oil millionaires."

Rouse's response evidently satisfied Hayden, who wrote back on Nov. 15, giving Rouse credit for the right tack.

"I should have known better than to be critical of something you are doing that I didn't understand," Hayden wrote.

Documents on the history of Columbia can be found online at the Columbia Archives:

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