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We get a chance to look at an icon's artifacts


IT IS NO SECRET in Columbia that James Rouse was a modest man, given his larger-than-life stature. A large photograph of him in a Columbia Association office captures his persona to perfection: a gentle smile. His trademark wrinkled slacks and coat. His $4.99 fisherman's hat.

Modesty probably would have prompted the late Mr. Rouse to scoff at the suggestion that Columbia build a museum to house his voluminous papers and artifacts to display for the world how the Eastern Shore native helped shape suburban shopping and urban renaissance.

But the man merits such a place because his contributions have impacted on Americana in a way, one could reasonably argue, that puts him in the same category with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright: as icons of modern design.

A Jim Rouse museum would be the ideal cultural institution for Columbia, a community that presented an alternative to suburban sprawl that was sweeping the landscape outside major urban areas. Nor would it be a threat to the museums in Baltimore, which is and should be the focus of major cultural institutions in Maryland. But it would be the perfect jewel in the ring of smaller attractions in Howard such as the Maryland Museum of African Art, the Ellicott City B & O Railroad Station Museum and the Howard County Historical Society Museum.

This would be an opportunity to explore a man who fought poverty in Baltimore but made a fortune developing suburban malls that drew people from cities. Of course, he also developed urban "festival" marketplaces to keep cities vibrant. He drove Baltimore's revival with the Inner Harbor and duplicated that successful venture in other cities in the United States and abroad.

The idea of a Jim Rouse museum has been kicking around for a while, probably more so since the recent release of 200 boxes of his belongings that now rest with the Columbia Association. His widow, Patricia Rouse, released the collection to the local organization, although it easily could have been a candidate for the Smithsonian Institution. But a museum may have to wait.

For now, the CA plans to open the Jim Rouse collection on the second floor of its building along the shore of Lake Kittamaqundi. It will display letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine stories, appointment books, hundreds of speeches, awards, honorary doctorate degrees, photographs with dignitaries and sundry other items gathered between 1939 and 1982.

dTC Barbara Kellner, the Columbia Association's archivist, says CA plans to open the Rouse collection to the public next year. Officials first will try to determine which items to display, she said.

Howard County Councilwoman Mary Lorsung says she would welcome a Rouse museum, if it ever happens. For now, the collection alone is enough to evoke a double-superlative.

"I think it's super fantastic," exclaims Ms. Lorsung, a council member from western Columbia who was a founding member of the Columbia Archives. She added that the Rouse papers can be kept "by a well-protected archival operation."

"At this point, these are his personal papers. These are not the Rouse Co. corporate archives," she adds. "It seems to me that providing the personal papers to the Columbia Archives in no way precludes moving them" to another location later.

The collection should prove fertile ground for urban planners, researchers and students. It is also revealing of Mr. Rouse's management style.

For example, a July 18, 1967, memo to his top vice president, William Finley, and sent to his executive staff, gives a glimpse of his vision and enthusiasm as he interacted with employees while Columbia was in its infancy.

'Distorted, diluted, lost'

"There is tremendous danger as we dig into the development stage and are beset by the recurrent deadlines, budgets, crises, etc. that the image of Columbia, as we have offered it to others, will become distorted, stained, diluted, lost," he cautioned. "This is a risk of all development undertakings. It simply must not happen in Columbia."

A more cryptic note to an associate discussing architect Marcel Breuer in September 1972 showed him to be plain-spoken and direct.

"He has done some cold things and some good things," Mr. Rouse wrote. "There is no question that he is a good architect, and if his organization has the capacity to produce an economical building, it might be a great thing for us to have him do something in Columbia or elsewhere."

Researchers will feast on material in boxes marked "fight blight," "urban America," and "James W. Rouse (personal)." He made speeches to university groups, think tanks and the Garden Clubs of America. The eventual display should include numerous examples of interactions between Mr. Rouse and his staff while discussing and debating plans for Columbia.

Serious researchers are certain to rife through the archives, which is fine, but a museum is needed to get the general public to spend time in Jim Rouse's life.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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