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This week in Columbia history: Mall opened to anchor a community

From the beginning, Columbia's villages were meant to be strung together near a central shopping mall.

"In the heart of town center," read a pamphlet that accompanied James Rouse's first presentation of the idea of Columbia to Howard County officials in 1964, "a beautiful enclosed shopping mall will house more than a hundred shops and stores along a completely air conditioned street."

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"On a rain or snow splashed winter evening, the shopper can enjoy a stroll along the warm and sheltered mall," the pamphlet said, describing a shopper's paradise lined with groves of tropical plants.

In the 1960s, as enclosed shopping malls were just beginning to take off, the idea would have seemed novel, but by the time The Mall in Columbia opened its doors on Aug. 2, 1971, a Washington Post writer wondered: "Do we really need another shopping center?"

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If size is any indicator, the answer was apparently "yes." The 640,000-square-foot mall that opened in 1971 eventually expanded to its current size of 1.4 million square feet.

The mall's initial construction cost $24 million, according to the Sun. The massive investment, spearheaded by Columbia's founder James Rouse and the Rouse Co., was seen by some as a relative risk, the Post wrote, saying that the mall's profit projections were based not on Columbia's population at the time, which was 14,000 residents, but on ambitious goals of population growth.

Despite the risk, two major department stores signed up to anchor the mall: Baltimore's Hochschild, Kohn and Co., and Washington's Woodward & Lothrop. In the months leading up to the mall opening, the rival stores began aggressive telephone campaigns to sign people up for new accounts, the Sun reported.

By opening day, the two department stores were ready to open along with 80 percent of the 100 store units in the mall. Today, the mall's directory lists 216 stores.

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Rouse envisioned the mall as a town center for Columbia, and its design reflected that goal, featuring fountains and an antique street clock brought from New England, the Sun reported.

As part of the Columbia community, the mall also made headlines for what were at the time pioneering steps away from segregation.

"Black and white construction workers eat lunch during finishing work at the Columbia mall," proclaims the caption of a photo in the Baltimore Sun archives that was taken in advance of the 1971 opening.

Construction is underway at the Mall in Columbia to prepare for incoming tenants over the next year and a half.

That year, three of the 100 businesses in the mall were black-owned, largely due to a deliberate effort by the Rouse Co. to recruit black entrepreneurs, the Post reported.

Despite that progress, ahead of the mall's first Christmas season, James Gilson, its manager, announced that he would not hire a black Santa Claus, saying "Santa historically is white just as Jackie Robinson is black and Confucius is an Oriental," the Sun reported. The Rouse Co. intervened, and the mall offered the black applicant, James Lambert, the job.

True to Rouse's vision, the mall through the years became a community gathering place, hosting traditions including the annual Christmas poinsettia tree and a periodic Ball in the Mall to celebrate Columbia milestones. One year, Rouse arrived at a Halloween masquerade ball at the mall dressed as a clown.

Today, the mall anchors a broader downtown Columbia area, which recently has drawn redevelopment efforts to turn the area into what County Executive Allan Kittleman called last year a "vibrant, urban downtown."

Rouse Co. official Jerome McDermott said in 1970 that the construction of the mall signaled "the beginning of a new downtown region," the Sun reported. Nearly 50 years later, that vision continues to take shape.



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