Columbia is blowing out the candles on a 50th birthday cake

"I often wonder," Columbia's founder James Rouse mused to a Sun reporter in 1982, "how many cities in the world there are that celebrate their birthday every year."

Perhaps not many. But from its first birthday in June 1968, Columbia, like a typical American child, has celebrated with a birthday cake.


At first Rouse, Columbia's developer and omnipresent father figure, cut the cake in Symphony Woods, handing out slices to the children of his new little town of around 1,200; a Sun story in 1984 said nearly the entire population of the town was there.

"He was the first one to put the apron on and take a knife and stand there and distribute cake," Marlys East, a former longtime employee of the Rouse Co., said. "He really played in the sandbox when it came to events like this."


Rouse, who lived in the city that he built until his death in 1996, cut Columbia's birthday cake for more than 20 years.

Columbia continues to carry on the tradition. On Saturday, June 17 at 7 p.m., to celebrate its 50th year, Columbia will cut into its 50th cake.

East, who is now managing director for Columbia's 50th Birthday Celebration, a nonprofit organizing celebratory events throughout 2017, said she can hardly believe the tradition's longevity.

"This has been going on for 50 years, it just blows my mind," East said. "I mean, we all celebrate our birthdays, but how many cities gather to cut a cake?"


Most cities, of course, weren't founded with such bold ambitions. Columbia was not just a city for Rouse, but a "garden to grow people," wrote Joshua Olsen, who wrote a biography of Rouse. And how better to reflect on the new town's progress than by noting a birthday?

Newspapers marked early Columbia milestones by taking stock of Columbia's progress, good and bad. Writers in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post wrote about slow profits during the recession in the 1970s, about what some called the outsized influence of the developer on local politics, about the dearth of affordable housing for low-income residents. And, like visiting aunties pinching a child's cheek, they marveled at each step forward — My, how you've grown.

"The baby town is now walking and talking for itself," The Washington Post wrote as Columbia turned 1. "At youthful age of 10, Columbia is feeling like a grown-up new town," read a headline in The Sun nine years and more than 40,000 residents later. And Columbia's 16th birthday, like any teenager's, was "sweet."

"'Sweet Sixteen' kind of means never been kissed, but Columbia has been kissed by one blessing after another," said Rouse in 1983, according to The Post.

Rouse's optimism was infectious. For the city's 15th birthday, Luther Young wrote for The Sun: "All signs point to a happy 16th, and a 25th, a 50th. Maybe by then — when Rouse's Harborplace is successfully retailing $100 chocolates and there's a Rouse mall on the moon — the questioners will have tired of comparing the reality of Columbia to the lofty goals set in 1967 and finally will have accepted the city as another project the 'master planner' did right."

Columbia did indeed make it to a happy 50th (and, although there is no Rouse mall on the moon, Harborplace does have a store that sells a 27-pound gummy bear for $179.99).

While measuring itself to the high standard Rouse set in the 1960s, Columbia kept growing — and so did its birthday parties.

In 1970, Columbia began throwing an annual Birthday Ball, which was eventually held in the newly opened Mall in Columbia. For its 10th birthday, the birthday committee decided to hold a fair. When The Sun wrote about it in 1984, the fair was attracting up to 100,000 people each year. And in 1989, The Sun wrote, Columbia held its first major Festival of the Arts.

Celebrating the 50th

Today, Columbia's birthday planners are still finding new and bigger ways to celebrate.

The festival, now called Lakefest, is produced by the Festival of the Arts, said East. Booths with fine arts, crafts, food and drinks will line the walkways by Lake Kittamaqundi, similar to previous years, with a stage for live music by the water. The festival will be open Friday through Sunday. For a list of festival events, go to home.columbiafestival.org/events/lakefest.

This year, Lakefest will feature a unique new exhibit: the Architects of Air Luminarium, a colorful inflatable sculpture. Visitors will take their shoes off to enter for a "light and sound experience," said East.

"It should be a real showstopper," said East about the luminarium. "Nothing like this has really dropped on the mid-Atlantic yet."

The festival will also feature a Lake Walk, a self-paced interactive experience along the 1.4 miles of path around Lake Kittamaqundi. The route, which begins by Whole Foods, will have 47 different stops with exhibits like facts about Columbia, sidewalk chalk art and a life-sized cardboard cutout of James Rouse, ready for selfie photos.

When developer James W. Rouse laid out his grand design for Columbia, planned cities were all the rage.

"The vigorous, affable Mr. Rouse almost surely will be there for that 50th cake-cutting, a 103-year-old in orthopedic loafers and madras shawl," Young wrote in his 1982 Sun story.

Amid brand-new exhibits, Columbia is holding fast to tradition: on Saturday evening, birthday organizers will hold a cake-cutting ceremony.

The committee ordered an elaborate cake from Charm City Cakes, the Baltimore shop made famous as the subject of the Food Network reality show, "Ace of Cakes." The five-tiered vanilla cake will be adorned with frosted ribbons and stars representing each of Columbia's villages. Its rainbow color scheme is based on the Columbia 50 logo, which draws inspiration from Columbia's mission of diversity and inclusion, according to the organization's website.

At three feet tall, the cake will be so large that it has to be delivered in pieces and assembled onsite at Lakefest, according to Charm City Cakes general manager Joanna McAvoy.

"The idea was that this is not just an ordinary year," said East. "So it's not just about going to a predictable sheet cake formula. It's about stepping up the visual importance of what this year represents, and creating a memorable cake."

The cake and accompanying cupcakes will feed about 800 people, East said.

If you go

Lakefest, the Luminarium and the Lake Walk will be open from 5 to 10:30 p.m. on Friday June 16; noon to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday June 17; and noon to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday June 18.

The cake-cutting ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

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