Archives exhibit shows how Columbia came to be

Columbia Archives manager Barbara Kellner is preparing an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first land purchases that would become the city.
Columbia Archives manager Barbara Kellner is preparing an exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first land purchases that would become the city.(Photo for The Baltimore Sun by Doug Kapustin)

Run by three county commissioners instead of a county executive, Howard County was a different place in the early 1960s.

As required of all counties by the Maryland General Assembly in 1953, Howard had finally approved its General Plan in 1960, a much-heralded document based on local officials' recognition that the county was "ripe for development," said Barbara Kellner, manager of the Columbia Archives.


Soon after, Charles Miller, J. Robert Black and David Force banded together to run for office on a no-growth platform and won their seats on Nov. 2, 1962. The rural county's population at the time, according to the U.S. Census, was about 36,000.

The next day, the Rouse Co. settled on the first of many properties it would eventually amass in an undercover operation to buy land quickly enough to avoid creating a seller's market.


That first acquisition of farmland was the catalyst that made the creation of developer James W. Rouse's planned city possible, Kellner says. As the official chronicler of Columbia's history, she is mounting an exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the first purchases that paved the way for America's City, as it was called.

"Creating Columbia: The Idea and the Gamble," the first of a series of exhibits, will open Tuesday with an open house at the Columbia Archives on Wincopin Circle.

Photographs, maps, news coverage and correspondence from 1962 to 1963, when the bulk of the properties were purchased, "will trace the progression of Rouse's thought process, analysis of the Baltimore-Washington area, and his first forays into town planning," she said.

"The real story that I want to tell is that there was an idea of how to build a place for people to live that would better serve their needs," she said, adding that it was Rouse's thinking that set the stage for what was to come.

"I want to invite people to the archives to stimulate conversation about the early days," said Kellner, who moved to Columbia in 1982 and recalls waiting for chickens to cross the road at Routes 29 and 108 as she drove near her home. She will also share anecdotes gleaned over the years about the city's earliest days.

The irony of those early back-to-back milestones in November 1962 is not lost on those interested in Columbia's genesis, even to this day. Perhaps even more surprising to some, Kellner said, was that when the no-growth commissioners learned of the plans for the land nearly a year later, "they really didn't have a problem with what Rouse wanted to do."

Indeed, the newly enacted General Plan "called for designations and controls that had never been used in the county," Kellner states in her display.

New and progressive concepts included setting aside school sites to handle growth, developing neighborhoods similar to those in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and centering growth in already developed areas, such as Ellicott City, Elkridge, Savage and North Laurel, she said.

"Rouse saw the possibilities of transferring his ideas to a real place due to the availability of land here," she said.

Even before the developer started accumulating land through five straw companies with such names as Serenity Acres, he had said in speeches that "we must infuse some of the spirit and feeling and scale of the small towns of America into our cities."

Michelle Miller, director of Community Services for the Columbia Association, which operates the archives, said, "It's important for people who have lived here for a long time as well as for new residents to understand the roots of Columbia and the possibilities for the future.

"The archives is a treasure for Columbia, as many cities don't have a place where their history is kept," Miller said.


"The gamble" the exhibit title refers to was the acquisition of that first 1,039-acre lot on Cedar Lane, where parts of Harper's Choice and Hickory Ridge are now, after Community Research and Development Board member Melvin Berman happened upon a for-sale sign and recommended the purchase to Rouse, Kellner said.

"They really didn't know if this would be the place, or whether they'd even be able to buy 13,000 more acres to build a city," she said. The company sought to buy contiguous properties but wasn't always successful, she noted.

"There was a lot of misconception that Rouse did this underhandedly," Kellner said. "But Rouse [executives] had kept their actions under wraps because they just didn't think the land would have been affordable if they had announced their intentions beforehand."

Most sellers were happy to get a fair price, "though owners of property in strategic locations may have been pressured [to sell] more than others," she said.

Handling the purchases under different buyers kept the initial costs to $500 per acre, though that price escalated to $1,500 to $2,000 toward the end of the purchasing cycle as sellers and others began to suspect what was afoot, she said.

In a sense, Rouse became "the biggest farmer in Howard County" after acquiring so much farmland with no guarantee of future development, she said.

Other archives exhibits will follow in sequence over the next 41/2 years, leading up to the 50th anniversary of Columbia in June 2017. A committee has formed to begin planning for that celebration, Kellner said.

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