Where Columbia Began, 50 Years Ago This Month

Before there were 10 villages with more than 30 neighborhoods for nearly 100,000 people, and before there were pathways and pools and gyms and camps, there were the first four plots of land making up a total of 1,039 acres.

This is where the planned community of Columbia began, with what was primarily farmland owned by R.G. Harper Carroll, William Kahler, James R. Moxley and Esther Wix. In early November of 1962 — 50 years ago this month — those properties were acquired for just $655,000 by a company calling itself Howard Estates.

Yet that was but a shell company of Community Research and Development, which itself was a subsidiary of The Rouse Company. And those 1,039 acres, all located west of Cedar Lane in what is now part of Harper’s Choice and Clary’s Forest, would be just the beginning.

By October of 1963, a total of five shell companies had purchased a patchwork of 13,719 acres of land, done in this surreptitious manner so as to avoid price inflation. At the end of that month, The Rouse Company announced that it was behind the mass land acquisition, and that it intended to use it to build a city.

“Being able to buy that much land is significant,” said Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives. “They were able to do it in nine months under relative secrecy so that they kept the prices to a point where it was economically feasible.”

Rouse had lived at the time in the Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park, giving him insight to problems both urban and suburban, according to Kellner. In cities, he saw overcrowding, crime, slums and less than ideal living conditions. In suburbs, meanwhile, there were the issues of isolation and too much travel time between where people lived and what they wanted to do.

As far back as the 1950s, Rouse had been speaking about cities and had been thinking about creating a different kind of community within a growing, metropolitan area. Three years later, a Community Research and Development board member saw the sign off Cedar Lane advertising the 1,039 acres of land for sale in this otherwise quiet section of Howard County.

“Howard County fit that model of being in a growth area,” Kellner said. “The county had published the 1960 general plan, which called for great housing and industrial growth in this area, just because of this location.”

The broker for that deal, Robert Moxley, had convinced his family and three other nearby landowners to sell their properties as one parcel. It was difficult for the people on these smaller farms to make a living, even back then, Kellner said.

The buyers “were offering very decent prices, and most of the owners took that as an opportunity to take the money and go elsewhere,” she said.

James Rouse and his namesake company were able to build their planned community in his figurative backyard. By 1964, The Rouse Company had released its plan for the city, with preliminary drawings. In 1965, it went before the county government for the zoning process, and passed without much discussion.

Howard County in 1965 still had some segregated schools, a decade past the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Kellner. A reporter asked Rouse whether Columbia was going to be a racially open city.

“Rouse responded ‘Yes,’ that he couldn’t imagine building a city and not having it be open to everyone,” Kellner said.

Columbia was founded two years later in 1967, and has grown in the 45 years since to become the second most populous community in Maryland.

And it all started 50 years ago this month with those 1,039 acres.

Written By David Greisman

(Columbia Archives will be opening an exhibit by the end of November on the 50th anniversary of the first land purchase, and it will be hosting an open house on Dec. 11. Columbia Archives is located at 10227 Wincopin Circle in Downtown Columbia.)

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