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This week in Columbia's history: Columbia Association rolls out personalized brick program

Columbia Association Open Space Management employee marks engraved bricks at the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront in 2003.
Columbia Association Open Space Management employee marks engraved bricks at the Lake Kittamaqundi waterfront in 2003. (Baltimore Sun file)

In July 1990, Columbia residents got to leave their mark on the 23-year-old city when Columbia Association announced that they were selling personalized bricks, to be laid below the People Tree at the Kittamaqundi lakefront.

The bricks, which then cost $30 according to The Baltimore Sun, were inscribed with names and dates before being placed in the paved lakefront during a renovation. The sale was so successful that Columbia Association not only broke even but made a profit, said Pam Mack, who managed the project as Columbia Association's vice president of community relations.

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"The project was very successful," Mack said. "People were very excited about it, so that was something that made me very happy."

Since that summer, Columbia Association has periodically reopened the opportunity for residents to inscribe their names on the lakefront; the most recent window was this year, in honor of Columbia's 50th birthday.

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The idea for the engraved bricks, Mack said, came from a landscape architect who mentioned a similar project in Portland, the organizers of which she later contacted for advice. Obtaining engraved bricks, Mack said, was difficult at the time, as the concept was relatively new and rare.

Bricks could have names and dates on them, Mack said, but they banned sayings to maintain a uniform appearance.

Mack organized the brick sale with the help of then-summer intern Colleen Duffy, who told The Sun in 1990 that mail-in orders immediately started "pouring in" after they sent out brochures to 26,000 Columbia households on July 6.

When the brick sale ended with a profit, Mack said she went to the Columbia Council to suggest where to put the money.

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"I said okay, we find ourselves with this profit, and I have a proposal," Mack said. "And the proposal is that we get the People Tree re-gold-leafed."

The iconic Columbia statue, she said, was covered in gold leaf that had begun "going black all over," making it look worn-down in comparison to the renovated lakefront.

"It's like when you repaint your living room, and you realize you need a new couch," Mack remembered saying.

The bricks, sold through August, were completed in the fall, Mack said, and they held an opening so that people could find their bricks, which were placed randomly.

The coveted spot closest to the People Tree, Mack remembered, was given to a young boy named Zach, who was then around 3 to 5 years old. "I think the brick just said 'Zach,'" Mack said.

Brick-hunting became a Columbia pastime.

"What would happen throughout the first year or two, is you'd go down to the lakefront and you'd see all these people looking down," said Mack. "They were of course looking for their brick."

To help brick-seekers, the Columbia Association staff and contractors mapped out the location of each brick, grid by grid.

In 2003, faced with a barrage of calls from people searching for their brick amid the 3,000 that had been installed, The Sun reported, Columbia Association launched an online map, which still exists today.

This year, Columbia Association sold around 400 new bricks, bringing in about $40,000, according to spokesman David Greisman.

Bricks bought for $75 were placed in the plaza area near Clyde's of Columbia; the more expensive $100 bricks were placed in a special Columbia's 50th birthday section, around a large paver reading "Columbia Maryland 50," according to the CA website.

Much of the money went to installation and manufacturing costs, Greisman said, and the remaining revenue went to the Columbia 50th Birthday Celebration.

Mack said the project has been so successful over the years because Columbia residents had such enthusiasm for the new town, especially when she first launched the brick sale in 1990.

"There were people who had probably been here about 20 years by then, and really felt such a great affection for Columbia, and the lakefront," Mack said. "People were very excited to have a personal attachment."

The bricks purchased in 2017 are already installed and can be viewed at the lakefront. But this year will not be the last time Columbia residents can etch their names by the People Tree.

"Now we look forward to the next one, which, like clockwork, will be in five years," Greisman said. Bricks will be up for sale in the fall of 2021 and placed in the ground in 2022.



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