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Columbia Archives exhibit honors, explores revealing of James Rouse's plan

It's no secret that the planning of Columbia took founder James Rouse and his team countless, arduous hours. But it might surprise Columbians to learn that the name of their community was arrived at in a somewhat haphazard manner.

According to Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives, Rouse and Columbia's planners had batted around a variety of names for months during the planning of the community in the early 1960s with little to no consensus.

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As a deadline approached, Rouse proffered an ultimatum on the name Columbia, which Kellner said had been used as a working title and was originally derived from the name of a post office placed along Columbia Pike.

"Rouse said, 'We'd rather have a well-planned town without a name than a name without the good plan,'" Kellner said. "Columbia was always on the list, but at one point, Rouse says, 'Does anyone have another suggestion?' and everybody says no. So he says, 'Columbia, it is,'" Kellner said.

The story is captured in a memo Rouse distributed to the original Columbia planners just months before Nov. 11, 1964, the day Rouse and his group revealed the plan to the public and the Howard County Commissioners, the then-elected leaders of the county, for the first time.

That memo, along with other historical documents, is included in the Columbia Archives latest exhibit, which debuted Tuesday, Nov. 11 – the 50th anniversary of the revelation of the plan. The exhibit is titled: "Columbia It Is! The Plan Revealed."

It will be on display for the next few months at the Archives, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 10227 Wincopin Circle in the American City Building, and is the latest in the Archives' Celebrating Columbia: 50 Years Ago Today Series, which explores the series of events leading to the official beginning of the community. The series traces the events chronologically with exhibits debuting at the Archives on the 50th anniversary of their original happening.

The series will continue through June 21, 2017 – the 50th anniversary of the official beginning of the community.

The current exhibit focuses on the events surrounding the Nov. 11, 1964 meeting, which was the culmination of a year of intensive work by 20 staff members and more than 60 consultants retained by Rouse, Kellner said.

The Archives has divided the exhibit into three sections: the build up to the meeting, the meeting itself and the public relations of the event.

Public Relations

In the years since Columbia was founded, Rouse has been lauded for his urban planning foresight and skill, but the exhibit highlights a different side to Rouse's genius: public relations.

"I think that's a very important part of the story," Kellner said, who added that openness and transparency were a key for Rouse.

"They were extremely open with what they were doing," she said. "One of the consultants was asked to report on how to communicate this to the community, and the recommendations were that you have to be very open and honest. And you have to be telling the story before other people start telling the story; get out there and answer the questions, and honestly."

Bob Tennenbaum, who served as chief planner and architect for Columbia, said Rouse took that recommendation to heart.

"We were told from the beginning: It's an open process," Tennenbaum said. "Rouse said we will come up and talk to any group, be it three people or 100 people; tell us the date and the venue and we'll come out."

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Rouse backed this up too, according to Kellner. Following his announcement in the fall of 1963 that he had purchased the 14,100 acres of farmland that was to become the community, Rouse wrote a weekly column in the Howard County Times answering questions from readers about the development.

Kellner also has copies of personalized letters Rouse wrote to concerned citizens, including the sometimes-tenuous continuing correspondence with leaders of the Howard County Citizens Association.

Tennenbaum recalled those letters, and the seriousness with which Rouse regarded them.

"They were very critical and asked all the right questions, and it was hard to respond to those questions because some of the questions they would ask were some of the few we couldn't answer publicly, and Jim Rouse would agonize over that," Tennenbaum said.

The public relations effort is perhaps best personified in what Tennenbaum said was dubbed the Green Paper – a paid advertisement that was inserted into the local newspapers published on Nov. 12, 1964 – the day after the plan was revealed. The illustrated pamphlet described in detail the plan for the community, including the economic and racial diversity and the preservation of the natural landscape.

"That was really the only written document that described in words what the plan was all about," Tennenbaum said. "It was a promise, and all the promises are in there. ... If you go back to that written document and underline the things that were promised and look at the things that were delivered, it was pretty damn good."

It didn't stop there, however. After the meeting, the 8-square-foot model of the community used at the Nov. 11, 1964 meeting, which depicted original plans for Town Center, Wilde Lake and portions of Oakland Mills, was placed on display as an open exhibit for residents.

Tennenbaum said it was housed inside the basement of a modest residence located along Route 29 and was staffed by the planners themselves on a rotating basis.

"We were probably the unslickest presentation of any real estate deal ever conceived by man," Tennenbaum said. "But that was our style."

The effort worked, according to Kellner. Phone surveys conducted by the Rouse Company in February 1965 show that approximately 80 percent of county residents interviewed were in support for the plan

By the time Rouse and the planners went before the county commissioners in 1965 to get the New Town Zoning approved, which was needed to develop the rural land, there was almost no opposition.

"There was one paper said that 75 percent of people were in favor of the zoning changes," Kellner said.

Tennenbaum agreed. "Rouse said, 'If you don't like it, than we will go away,'" Tennenbaum said. "The bottom line was, they thought it was great; they thought it was terrific."

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