Now, the organization that runs the planned town says it will drop images of the tree — a cluster of 66 interconnected human figures — from its signs, uniforms, stationery and business cards at a cost of as much as $200,000.
The Columbia Association's People Tree logo is partly a victim of changing times — officials say it doesn't work well for social media or mobile devices. The organization also acknowledges that it doesn't own the rights to the images, and officials aren't comfortable continuing to use the insignia they've had for years.
The decision has surprised residents who see the 14-foot metal statue as an enduring representation of the Howard County town's character.
"The People Tree has been very meaningful for the people who moved to Columbia over these 40 years. What it symbolizes is that what's most important in Columbia is its people," said Barbara Russell, 71, who is one of the town's original residents and is sorry to see the change.
Rouse founded Columbia with the idea that it would be a model suburban community, welcoming people of all races and income levels. Residents also were attracted to the extensive pathways, easily accessible shopping areas at the village centers as well as a strong sense of community, with locally run village boards.
The statue has stood on the shore of Lake Kittamaqundi for decades. The number of figures represents the year — 1966 — that construction on the town began.
On its website, the association describes the installation as an "artistic representation of Columbia's goal to create an environment that contributes to the growth of people and fosters community spirit."
The new logo hasn't been revealed, but Columbia Association president Phillip Nelson and others said the design will be reminiscent of the old one — even though it won't use an image of the statue.
"It tries to maintain the basic principle of the People Tree statue," he said. "I think there are some people that would like to see us maintain usage of the People Tree."
Board member Alex Hekimian, who represents the Village of Oakland Mills, hopes to see something similar to the former logo. "I want to maintain that visual image because it is a symbol of Columbia. People do cherish that symbol — that Columbia is a place for the growth of people," he said.
CA spokeswoman Valerie Barnard said the cost to replace the logo around town would range from $70,000 to $200,000.
Howard Research and Development Corp., a subsidiary of Columbia's developer, has allowed the homeowner's association to use the registered trademark, said spokeswoman Nancy Tucker.
But Nelson said his organization decided to make a clean break in order to avoid future legal problems.
The Columbia Association has not changed the logo in 15 years, and discussions about a new one began as the homeowner's association sought a more active social media presence, Barnard said. The People Tree image could not be easily scaled down for social media sites or for mobile phones, which have smaller screens, she said.
Association chairman Michael Cornell said the logo change has come up at several meetings but the board has not seen any drafts. He hopes to retain the same concept as the existing logo, which includes the words "Columbia Association" written in blue and green letters and an outline of the statue.
He said it makes sense to do something different now, as Columbia undergoes some of the biggest changes in its history. A planned downtown redevelopment is expected to transform the area around The Mall in Columbia into a more walkable, city-like atmosphere centered on mixed-use projects.
"We still want scholars and textbooks talking about Columbia. The challenge is reinventing Columbia and moving forward," Cornell said.
He added however, that he expects some naysayers. "When it comes to updating, I don't know that you are going to make everyone happy," he said.
Suzanne Waller, the association board member who represents the Town Center, said that although the board hasn't seen the logo yet, it's time for something new. "We're in the second phase of building a better city," she said.
Russell said she's sorry that the People Tree will no longer be the promotional symbol of the association.
She recalled the day she and her husband stopped off Route 29 while traveling home to Baltimore from Rockville, where they were visiting friends. They had recently moved to the area and were looking for a bigger home as they prepared to have their first child, but the search was difficult for the interracial couple when many developments discriminated against them.
The same day they gave in to the promotional signs that advertised new apartments, she said she they were welcomed into the community.
"We hesitantly got out of the car and they asked us if we wanted to rent one," she said, adding that they moved in shortly thereafter. "It was a very lovely country setting. That's all there was. … That is how we accidentally moved to Columbia."
They stayed for so many years, she said, because "it was, from the beginning, an open community. That's why the People Tree has had such a profound meaning for many of the people who live in Columbia."
She also recalled that, years later, the mall replaced the annual holiday poinsettia tree, allowing a car dealership to park vehicles in the space where it had been. She said residents protested around the mall and demanded that the tree be brought back. It was.
"If people felt that strongly about a poinsettia tree, you can imagine how upset people will be [about the People Tree]," she said.