It’s been more than 20 years since Columbia’s founder and visionary builder, James W. Rouse, died, but people seem to be increasingly curious about his former home in Wilde Lake as the city celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
“We often get people knocking at the door and asking if Jim Rouse lived here,” says Lynn Gallagher, who purchased the 4,000-square-foot house with David Bazell in June 2013.
The couple had been looking to buy a home in Columbia when they were shown the lakefront property. It was the first time the house had come on the market since Rouse bought it in 1974.
After crossing the threshold and taking in the expansive view of man-made Wilde Lake through floor-to-ceiling windows and doors in the living-dining room, Gallagher, a part-time lawyer, part-time artist, knew their search had ended.
“I said, ‘This is our house,’” she recalls.
She had been living in Washington for some time and wasn’t at all sure about moving from the nation’s capital into the suburbs.
“For me, this house changed the whole equation,” she says. “Dave was less convinced.”
Bazell, a physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, suggested that it was more space than they needed and cost more than they’d planned to spend. In addition, it had been built in 1969, had been vacant for four years and needed a lot of work.
But Gallagher prevailed.
The couple bought the two-level, five-bedroom home on a third of an acre and moved into it in September 2013 after renovations were completed.
Perhaps the curious tourists who find their way to the quiet oak-lined street are the result of a well-known story that, in fact, isn’t an urban myth.
Soon after moving into the home with his wife, Patty, Rouse painted the front entrance’s double doors bright yellow — without seeking prior approval from the village’s architectural review committee. The unusual color choice certainly sets the home apart.
After the deed was done and a covenant violation issued, Rouse sent a personal letter dated Jan. 14, 1975, to four neighbors apologizing for the fact that he “impulsively violated” the rules and confessing that “it is an understatement to say I should have known better.” He requested that they sign off retroactively on the color change to bring the property into compliance, which they did.
When the present-day owners were ready to make an offer on the property, Bazell’s two daughters, who were 13 and 17 at the time, wrote the seller a note detailing how much they loved the house and promising to never change the doors’ color.
Though Jim Rouse died in April 1996, Patty Rouse continued to live in the home until 2009, when she moved to Vantage House, a high-rise retirement community with views of Wilde Lake from its upper floors.
She didn’t want the house to be sold while she was alive, so it remained unoccupied and wasn’t put on the market until after her death in March 2012.
Photographs in the Columbia Archives of a smiling Jim Rouse taking advantage of lakefront living and entertaining family and friends wordlessly attest to the couple’s happiness in the home.
In a personal photo album in the Columbia Archives that Patty Rouse titled “Happy Times at Waterfowl Terrace,” Rouse can be seen fishing from the small dock in waders and sitting on a tree swing near the lake in a short-sleeved shirt and plaid pants. He is grinning widely in both shots.
The girls’ letter, it was later revealed, hit a sentimental chord that clinched the deal with Rouse’s stepdaughter, who administered her mother’s estate, Bazell says.
As if lake views from every room weren’t enough reason for choosing the house, Gallagher describes the thrill of watching a half-dozen bald eagles fly over the water.
“They call out in this beautiful voice and you can see them fishing in the lake,” she says.
Great blue herons frequently survey their surroundings from the water’s edge, and geese and other waterfowl abound.
The owners love that they can get their kayaks from the home’s lower level and walk out a back door to launch them. One of Bazell’s daughters used to paddle out to the middle of the lake and do her homework.
Gallagher says she’s taken “hundreds and hundreds of photos” of sunrises over the lake.
Beyond its waterfront setting, the home’s many charming features appeal to Gallagher.
She fell in love with the clay tiles emblazoned with cattails that embellish the living room fireplace surround, saying “they really called my name.”
The row of clerestory windows at the roof’s peak, which allows even more natural light into the living-dining area, was a nice architectural bonus. And she saw potential in the U-shaped kitchen, which the couple ended up gutting.
After doing all the kitchen demolition themselves, they hired contractors to replace the vinyl flooring with cork and to install cherry Shaker-style cabinets and earthy-green granite countertops. They reconfigured the layout of the cabinets to an L-shape and placed the sink in a perpendicular island that faces the lake, making dishwashing and meal preparation more enjoyable.
Throughout much of the home, worn carpeting was ripped out and area rugs installed over the original oak flooring, which was refinished. The couple also modernized the two bathrooms on the first floor.
Gallagher’s eye for design is showcased in the salmon-colored sofa and loveseat she chose for the living room for their low profile, which doesn’t obstruct lake views. A jute rug keeps the look clean and classic.
A mid-century teak dining-room table with eight chairs that Bazell got from a family member is complemented by a refurbished 1970s-era teak wall unit the couple purchased specifically to fit the space.
Future plans include replacing the deck that spans the length of the house and exchanging wood railings for cables to lessen obstruction of the lake.
Gallagher has added small decorating touches to the home to honor Rouse’s role as Columbia’s founder, such as the two framed prints in the foyer — one for Columbia and one for Wilde Lake. The originals were created decades ago by Gail Holliday, who served as an artist-in-residence under Rouse and designed different graphic images for Columbia villages and neighborhoods.
The new owners say they imagine the Rouses would have liked what they’ve done to honor the spirit of the house. Sometimes, they wonder if Columbia’s founder might be signaling his approval.
“We hear creaks moving across the living room ceiling, almost like there’s someone walking around up there,” Bazell says.
Since the noise has been occurring almost daily since they moved in, the couple isn’t worried that it might be caused by a structural problem.
“We like to say it’s the ghost of Jim Rouse,” Bazell says with a laugh. “I’ve joked that maybe we could charge admission for people to come and listen to it.”