Spear Center memories part of Columbia life

The Baltimore Sun

Barbara Nicklas stepped out onto the balcony of the Spear Center and looked out over Lake Kittamaqundi.

"This has got to be one of the best views in Howard County," she said, looking out over the trees and breathing in the summer air.

Many longtime Howard countians have fond memories of stepping onto that balcony, drinks or appetizers in hand, during the countless weddings and other celebrations that took place in the Spear Center, a ballroom on the top floor of the former Rouse Building in Columbia. But in 1998, the room, which opened 24 years earlier as the Kittamaqundi Room, was closed to the public and the celebrations moved elsewhere.

That situation is changing -- ever so slightly -- as General Growth Properties Inc., which brought the Rouse Co. in 2004, allows some local organizations to again host events in the Spear Center.

"We have been allowing select community-based groups, mostly nonprofits, to use the room," said Nicklas, vice president, marketing, master planned communities for General Growth Properties. "The focus is on events that benefit the community versus private events.

"We were listening to the community," she added. "People were telling us that they loved being up here. That they have great memories."

On Wednesday, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to host Columbia's 40th Birthday Salute to Business at the Spear Center, with Gov. Martin O'Malley joining pioneer and current business and community leaders.

"The reason that we're using it this time around is because of the history," said Timothy Harwood, director of marketing and events for the chamber.

The groups pay for their food, and other costs such as security, setup and cleanup, Nicklas said.

On Oct. 26, bicycling champion Lance Armstrong will speak at a dinner in the room, benefiting the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. The Columbia Foundation and Columbia Festival of the Arts have held events there this year.

The room, which seats as many as 785 for meetings and up to 480 for banquet-style events, was for a long time one of the most popular spots in the county to celebrate life's passages. Its first event, a corporate lunch, was held in 1974.

The Spear Center was designed for revelry. With its green carpet and unique grid-shape light fixtures, it looks the same as it did all those years ago. The space can be divided into smaller rooms, and a dance floor or stage can be added. A coatroom and bathroom are easily found in the hallway.

But these days, the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses are gone, and the room is mostly dark. On a recent visit, flip charts lay on tables, remnants of a meeting.

"The company's annual meetings used to be here until it got too large," Nicklas said.

The center has a full kitchen, but the stoves can be used only to warm food, not to cook, said Nicklas.

Anne Ford, manager of the architectural review committee for GGP, said everything in the kitchen works, but "we just made a conscious decision" not to use the stove.

"We just recently started allowing people to use the room again, so we take baby steps," she said.

Kittamaqundi means "friendly meeting place," and that's what Columbia founder James W. Rouse had in mind for the room, said Tina Cole, who booked and managed the space for decades.

"The room was Mr. Rouse's idea," she said.

Cole, 80, was assistant manager and then manager of the center from 1974 to 1990 and continued the job as an outside contractor until 1998, she said. In 1990, the name of the room was changed to the Spear Center to honor Rouse President Michael Spear, who died in an August 1990 plane crash along with his wife, Judy, and 19-year-old daughter, Jodi.

The GGP building, with its walls of windows and sharp angles and highly polished wood floors, was designed by renowned California architect Frank O. Gehry early in his career. The ballroom remains its crowning glory.

For years, it was in such demand that reservations had to be made years in advance, Cole said.

"The room became very popular because it was the best game in town," she said, adding that it attracted business from Silver Spring, Baltimore and Pikesville, as well as Howard County.

Over the years, the Spear Center has hosted such famous people as pianist Van Cliburn, psychologist Joyce Brothers, comedian and activist Dick Gregory and civil rights leader Julian Bond, said Cole, flipping through three sets of photo albums showing smiling people at events in the room.

One of her favorite events was a b'nai mitzvah -- a multiple bar and bat mitzvah -- for quintuplets.

Cole said people of different ethnicities held celebrations in the room, demonstrating a diversity that mirrored Columbia's.

She made a point of dressing to match the festivities, donning saris for Indian events and kimonos for Japanese occasions, for example. She also made a point of matching the color of her outfit to the room's decor, as photos of her in a rainbow of dresses show.

Fond memories of the room have extended to warm feelings toward Cole, who often helped families with catering, flowers and setup.

"I can be anywhere," she said. "I can be in the mall. I can be in the supermarket. And people will come up and hug me."

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