She said she intends to draw on those old documents and artifacts to mount exhibits and programs about the purchases and the planning that went into Columbia's development.

Kellner said the roots of the assemblage can be traced to the late 1950s, when Rouse was developing shopping centers such as Harundale in Glen Burnie, Cherry Hill in New Jersey and Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. During those years, she said, Rouse began to question the seemingly unplanned way in which America's cities were expanding, and wondered if there could be a better method to accommodate the country's population growth.

On May 5, 1959, Rouse outlined his thoughts about combating sprawl in a speech to a housing group in Newark, N. J. In his speech, he revealed a desire "to marshal all available powers and resources into a total plan and total program for making our cities livable, efficient and beautiful, in the shortest practicable number of years."

Soon afterward, Rouse began testing his ideas. One early experiment was the Village of Cross Keys, a community for 5,000, built on part of the Baltimore Country Club's former Roland Park golf course in North Baltimore. He also prepared plans to build a community on Wye Island, part of Maryland's Eastern Shore, but was never able to carry it out.

By the early 1960s, Rouse had formed a subsidiary, Community Research and Development, that began exploring ways to create large communities from scratch. CRD's studies indicated a developer would need between 12,000 and 15,000 acres to accommodate a city of 100,000.

Rouse also reasoned that, in order to succeed, a new city should be between two larger, fast-growing metropolitan areas, should be easily accessible to the interstate highway system, and that the land could not be prohibitively expensive to acquire. He knew that the eastern seaboard of the United States was a logical place to build, and that the area between Baltimore and Washington was an obvious candidate. But he did not have a specific site in mind.

The answer came in April 1962, when a CRD board member named Melvin Berman saw a four- by eight-foot sign on Cedar Lane advertising the availability of 1,039 acres of farmland, and mentioned it to Rouse.

The property had been assembled by a Howard County real estate broker named Robert Moxley. Moxley's uncle, James R. Moxley Sr., owned 632 acres. The rest was farmland owned by three other families that Robert Moxley contacted to see if they would be willing to sell: the Kahler, Carroll and Wix families.

According to Kellner, Rouse was interested, but he knew that 1,039 acres was only a fraction of the land needed for the project he had in mind. Still, with that land as a starting point, he was able to determine the location of his future city and develop a plan of action.

He wrote to Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., with which he had previously worked, about forming a joint venture, with the insurance company providing funds for land acquisition. He asked a lawyer outside his company, John Martin "Jack" Jones Jr. of Piper and Marbury, now DLA Piper, to represent the buyer. He and Jones set up the five straw companies to hide the fact that Rouse was involved. Besides Howard Estates, the names were Potomac Estates, Serenity Acres Inc., Cedar Farms Co. and Farmingdale Inc.

In his initial meeting with Howard County officials, in 1963, Rouse said he expected his planned city to have a population of 100,000 by 1980, 17 years off. As of 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population was 99,085.

In between, Rouse retired from the Rouse Company in the 1980s to devote time to a nonprofit foundation, and he died in 1996. The Rouse Company was acquired in 2004 by General Growth Properties, which later split into General Growth and the Howard Hughes Corp.

Although the population growth and physical development have taken longer than expected, Kellner said, the community turned out largely as Rouse envisioned it.

With his big ideas, Rouse was very much in sync with the times, Engelke said.

"It was the 1960s," he said. "People were talking about landing a man on the moon. People weren't thinking of limitations at that point."

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