First 50 Years


Just take one look at Columbia’s history, and it is easy to see what makes this planned community so unique.  Columbia epitomizes the New Town Movement in the United States.  At its inception, the New City was carefully and purposefully planned, developed and built in order to address issues of:

  • Urban overcrowding and congestion
  • Scattered, haphazard development in suburban areas

Columbia shares many of its characteristics with, among others, Reston, VA;  Woodlands, TX;  Irvine, CA and Las Vegas, NV.  However our city stands apart from others due to its unique development process.  Experts formed a Planning Group—an interdisciplinary team which included representatives from:

  • Education
  • Recreation
  • Sociology
  • Transportation
  • Religion
  • The Rouse Company architects and engineers

Notably, the city is unique for the level of diversity and inclusion present among those who live in the 10 villages.  

Columbia was developed with the clear goal of being an integrated community.  Ahead of its time, this decision was reached before before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, national origin or religion.

Take a look at noteworthy milestones in Columbia’s history below.

First Land Purchase

A sign advertising the sale of 1039 acres led to the first purchase of land for Columbia. The land was located near Cedar Lane and Route 108. A fast-paced program of land acquisition followed with over 14,000 acres purchased in the following nine months.

Planning Work Group Formed.

Rouse gathered a team of professionals in various fields to explore ways to create the best possible environment for people. The first meeting of this group was November 14, 1963.

Columbia Plan Presented to Howard County Commissioners

On November 11, 1963 James Rouse unveiled a large scale model of Columbia’s Town Center and Wilde Lake and outlined the goals, objectives and designs for the new city.

Zoning Approval

The approval of New Town Zoning necessary to move forward on the development of Columbia came to Jim Rouse in the way of a telegram while he was vacationing at his camp at Ahmic Lake in Canada.

National Symphony Announces Plans

The National Symphony Orchestra announced plans to perform its summer schedule in a new pavilion to be built in Columbia. It would still be several months before final terms made the plan a reality and the pavilion was named Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Columbia Association is formed

Columbia Parks and Recreation Association (aka Columbia Association) was formed to provide the means to “enhance the quality of life for people living and working in Columbia.”

Columbia Construction Begins

Development of Lake Kittamaqundi and Wilde Lake and were among the first projects. The Exhibit Center and Teachers Building in Town Center and the neighborhoods of Wilde Lake soon followed.

Lake Kittamaqundi Completed

Lake Kittamaqundi, the centerpiece of Columbia’s Downtown, was completed by the fall of 1966.

Groundbreaking for first Columbia business

Jim Rouse and Fred Hittman, president of Hittman Associates, invited Congressman Charles “Mac” Mathias; Charles Murphy, chairman of the Howard County Commissioners; and Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew to mark the occasion of the first industry to sign on in Columbia.

Wilde Lake Dedication

The dedication of Wilde Lake officially opened Columbia on 21 June 1961. This date has since become Columbia's celebrated birthday,

Exhibit Center Opens

The promise of Columbia, told in an exhibit titled “The Next America” drew crowds to the city beginning on June 21, 1967. Over a million people visited the Exhibit Center before it closed in 1989.

Hobbit’s Glen Golf Course opens

Among the first projects completed was the golf course which opened in June 1967. The course was designed as a championship course and in 1968 it hosted golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead during an American Cancer Society benefit tournament.

First Residents

Columbia began welcoming residents in July 1967. The very first families made their home in the Bryant Gardens Apartments.

Merriweather Post Pavilion Opens

The pavilion, built originally as the summer home of the National Symphony Orchestra, opened on July 14, 1967. Marjorie Merriweather Post and Vice President Hubert Humphrey made the opening official as the Washington elite settled in for the performance.

Wilde Lake Village Center Opens

The village center had its opening celebration in July. Anthony Richard Beauty & Barber Shop, The Cheese Shop, Pharmacy of Wilde Lake, Columbia Bank & Trust, Lord Baltimore Cleaners, Maron Candy Shop, Ridings Wine & Liquor, Sunoco Gas Station, Tidewater Book Shop, Rosso Bros. Music Co. and Giant Foods provided for the first Columbia residents’ needs.

First Church Service

Groundbreaking for the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center was not until June 1969 so the early Catholic and Protestant church services in Columbia were held at Slayton House.

First Town Meeting

James Rouse spoke at the first meeting of Columbia residents on Oct. 8, 1967. He told Columbia’s pioneers how deeply grateful he was to have them willing to take the chance on life in this new city.

First newspaper for Columbia published

The Howard County Times began publishing the Columbia Times in February 1968.

First Village Election

Wilde Lake, the first village, held the first election of community board members in February 1968. James Rouse in noted the significance of the election as the beginning of the process between the developer and the community to move Columbia forward.

Columbia Foundation Established

The Rouse Co. established the Columbia Foundation as a vehicle to help Columbia grow by enlarging the flow of charitable funds into Columbia and Howard County. The mission then and now is to enhance the quality of life by helping to meet diverse needs and building a more caring, creative and effective community.

Wilde Lake Swim Center opens

The all-weather swim center opened in April 1968 with an open roof design. That design did not prove practical and it was soon enclosed.

National Politics

As Columbia readied to celebrate its first birthday presidential hopeful George Wallace was scheduled to hold a rally at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Columbia responded with a town meeting to reaffirm Columbia’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Head Sportswear Locates toColumbia

Oakland Ridge was the first office park and drew some major businesses – a key element in the plan for Columbia to allow people to live and work in Columbia.

First Elementary School Opens

Bryant Woods Elementary School opened in September 1968. Mr. B (Tom Brzezinski) was the long-time beloved media specialist.

First Library Opens

Columbia’s first library was in Wilde Lake Village Center. This photo is from the dedication in May 1968 which brought together (l. to r.) Marvin Thomas, Director of the Howard County Library; John Levering, Columbia Association Manager; Mrs. William L. Fearing, president of the Howard County Library Board of Trustees; Harry T. Murphy, Howard County Commissioner; Charles E. Hogg, member of the Howard County Library Board of Trustees; and Charles E. Miller, Howard County Commissioner.

Local Politics

Omar Jones was elected Howard County’s first County Executive when the form of government transitioned from Commissioners to the County Executive/County Council model.

Oakland Mills Village Center opens

The community buildings in Oakland Mills are called The Barn and The Other Barn. The architects decided to repurpose the barns rather than tear them down giving the new city a link to its past history.

Columbia Medical Plan

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions announced the development of the Columbia Medical Plan, a voluntary program of prepaid, comprehensive care for, in February 1969.

Banneker Road fire station opens

Columbia’s first fire station was a contemporary style structure designed by the firm of Gehry, Walsh and O’Malley.

Wilde Lake Interfaith Center Opens

The opening of Wilde Lake Interfaith Center was a milestone for Columbia Cooperative Ministry which had been formed ca. 1966 as part of Columbia’s commitment to an ecumenical approach to religion. When the Interfaith Center opened it included space for The Churches of St. John: Roman Catholic, United Methodist-United Presbyterian, Lutheran, American Baptist; and Howard County Jewish Council and Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County. Photo by Donald Reichle.

General Electric Gets Go Ahead

After years of negotiation and planning G.E. announces intention to begin construction of Appliance Park East in June 1969. The original plan called for employment of up 12,000 within 10 years. It never got close to that figure and shuttered all operations in 1990. Located at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway the buildings have been repurposed.

Opening of Antioch

Antioch of Ohio opened a field study center housed in Oakland Manor in 1969.

Grounding breaking for the Mall in Columbia

In another first for Columbia it was the first area mall to bring together Washington DC retailer Woodward & Lothrop and Baltimore-based Hochschild Kohn.

Howard Community College.

A single building comprised the whole of Howard Community College when it opened in 1970. It held everything from the classrooms to the library and the mailroom.

Columbia Athletic Club

Columbia Association’s first fitness club opened in Harper’s Choice in 1971.

Mall in Columbia Opens

The mall opened for business on Monday, August 2 . But on Sunday thousands arrived for Howard County Day at the Mall. Howard County Executive Omar Jones presented James Rouse with the commemorative plaque to mark the occasion and Howard Countians were treated to an old-fashioned bull roast in the parking deck and allowed to browse through the mall. “Blue Laws” in force at the time prevented sales of merchandise.

Pat Kennedy named Columbia Association President

Kennedy came to CA in 1972 and led CA for 26 years initiating many of the projects and programs that are basic to Columbia such as the Lakefront Summer Festival, Before and After School Care, the teen center, volunteer corps and Sister City program as well as so many of the recreational facilities.

Ball in the Mall

Celebration of Columbia’s birthday began with the first birthday in 1968. Marking the milestone 5th year there was the first Ball in Mall. Staged at the Mall in Columbia it featured two bands, set-ups and snacks for $8 per couple.

The Rouse Company to relocate to Columbia

Groundbreaking for The Rouse Company headquarters on Lake Kittamaqundi.

Hospital Opens

Howard County General Hospital, first known as Columbia Medical Center, opened in 1973.

Business and Industry Growing

Columbia now home to 90 industries, more than 400 businesses and 17,000 jobs. The landscaped office and industrial parks like Oakland Ridge and Guilford housed most of them.

Long Reach Village Center opens

Pappy’s was a popular eatery. Other gone but not forgotten tenants included the Pharmacy, Nature’s Cupboard of Love, Union Trust Bank and Safeway. Richburn Liquors is the long-surviving retailer.

The Rouse Company Headquarters Opens

The Frank Gehry-designed building consolidated several offices of the company occupied in Baltimore and Columbia.

Lake Elkhorn

Pat Kennedy presided over the dedication of Columbia’s largest lake on June 22, 1974. Lake Elkhorn is a 37-acre lake in the village of Owen Brown. The lake depth averages eight feet and is 15 feet at its deepest point.

Clyde’s Restaurant Opens

This favorite Columbia restaurant followed two short-lived tenants: The Odyssey and Per Bacco. The renovations in 2013 updated much of the interior but preserved the popular vintage-like bar.

Columbia Medical Plan Continues to Grow

New offices on Harper’s Farm Road house expanded services including an Urgent Care center.

King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden visits Columbia

King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden visits Columbia during a month-long visit to the United States making stops at Bryant Woods Elementary School and the Mall.

The Young Columbians perform at the White House

Toby Orenstein had been asked to put together something for a Merriweather Post Pavilion show in 1975. She launched a program of patriotic songs that proved so popular that they were asked to perform around the country. The group continues to perform with a variety of programs.

Columbia celebrates 10th Birthday

Columbia celebrates its 10th Birthday. A Ball in the Mall, the first City Fair, dedication of the carillon bells and more mark the milestone birthday.

Rouse company gifts the carillon bells

The Rouse Company gifted Columbia with 10 carillon bells installed in the tower in honor of Columbia’s 10th birthday in 1977.

President Carter attends Willie Nelson concert in Columbia

President Jimmy Carter, a big fan and friend of Willie Nelson came to Columbia on July 21, 1978 for one Nelson’s many concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The first was in July 21, 1978. Rouse was a strong supporter of Carter’s election in 1976. He came again on Sept. 13, 1980 when he took to the stage with Nelson. This photo is from National Archives

Supreme Sports Club

A teen dance at the Supreme Court and Nautilus, later renovated to become the Supreme Sports Club, was one of many efforts by Columbia Association to sponsor events for teenagers.

Model Homes Opening

The openings of model home parks were festive occasions. This one in Kings Contrivance in 1979 was no exception.

10 story addition to the Cross Keys gets go ahead

The Rouse Company’s, Hugh Oesterreicher, Dave Forester and Al Scavo break ground for the 10- story addition to the Cross Keys Inn in 1980 eight years after the original two-story inn opened as Columbia’s first hotel. Following the expansion the name was changed to Columbia Inn. In 1998 the hotel was sold and became the Sheraton Hotel.

Central Library Opens

The opening of the Central Library in downtown on January 5, 1981 was the climax of intensive efforts dating back to the beginning of the Columbia planning process. In 1974 a citizen committee was formed and helped move along the planning for a central library. A site was selected in 1977, ground breaking took place in 1979.

First Columbia Graduation

First group of children who went from kindergarten through high school in Columbia schools graduated. This photo captures most, but not all, of that Columbia milestone group.

Columbia Petting Zoo Closes

There was a Children’s Zoo in Symphony Woods from 1973 to 1982. The zoo was designed to insure that Columbia children growing up in an urban environment had an opportunity to have direct contact with animals and to increase use and enjoyment of the city’s open space.

Florence Bain Senior Center Opens

A portrait of Florence Bain hangs in the main sitting area of the center. Bain, who chaired the Commission on Aging and organized Howard County’s chapter of AARP, advocated for many years for a permanent home for the senior center.

Owen Brown Interfaith Center Opens

n 2003 it underwent extensive renovations including the stained glass curtain wall. Columbia’s third Interfaith Center currently is home to seven diverse religious congregations.

Columbia Magazine

January 1985 was the first issue of Columbia Magazine which reflected just a name change from the Columbia Association publication formerly called CalendaR. “Since we’re your city magazine,” noted the editor, our name should reflect that pride.”

Mike Spear named Columbian of the Year

Mike Spear named Columbian of the Year in 1986. Columbia Magazine included this category in its best of the year lists. Mike Spear, who joined The Rouse Company as an intern in 1964 and 1965 as the Columbia plan was taking shape, was named President of The Rouse Company in 1986. Spear died tragically in a plane crash in 1990 leaving a void in the leadership of Columbia development.

Joseph Square

Joseph Square, named to honor Harper’s Choice community volunteer John Joseph, was changed to Harper’s Choice Village Center when the center was redesigned. The Joseph Square name is retained in the central square and fountain.

Columbia celebrates 20th Birthday

Columbia celebrates its 20th Birthday with many activities including a Ball in the Mall, dedication of The Hug sculpture and the Cergy-Pontoise Plaza.

Columbia Festival of the Arts launches first full program

Historic Oakland Opens

Columbia Association renovated the 1811 mansion and opened it to the public as a community space and offices for the Town Center Community Association.

Downtown Lakefront Renovation.

The first personalized pavers were installed in time for Columbia’s 25th birthday.

Woodward and Lothrup Closes

Original Mall anchor, Woodward and Lothrup, closes its doors and is replaced by J.C Penney.

James Rouse Dies at 81

Columbia’s founder died in his home in Wilde Lake on April 9, 1996. Columbians remembered him at memorial service at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Jim Rouse Theatre opens in renovated Wilde Lake High School.

Columbia’s first high school was torn down and a new one, incorporates a professional stage to serve the school and the community. Rouse’s grandson, Edward Norton, was on hand for the opening evening program.

Howard County General Hospital Merges with Johns Hopkins

The merger creates the Horizon Foundation to improve the health and wellness of people who live or work in Howard County.

Celebrate 2000

Columbia Association holds New Year’s Eve celebration to ring in the new century.

Rusty Scupper demolished

The building that had been the Rusty Scupper was demolished leaving room for a new office tower on Wincopin Circle.

Maggie Brown named Columbia Association president

Long-time Columbian who moved to Columbia because of its commitment to racially-open housing takes the reins of the community association.

AMC 14 opens at the Mall in Columbia

First movie is "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"

The Rouse Company sold to General Growth Properties

The sale marked an end of an era of development under Columbia’s founders.

Community charrette weighs in on future of Columbia

Sparked by a proposal of a new Master Plan for Town Center by General Growth Properties Howard County initiates community input.

Wilde Lake Giant Closes

Initiation of a new plan for the Wilde Lake Village Center started in 2006 with the closure of Columbia’s first supermarket.

Young Columbians sing at 40th Birthday

The Young Columbians, a group organized in 1975 by Toby Orenstein, helps to celebrate Columbia’s birthday.

General Growth submits master plan for Downtown

The plan for the next 30 years submitted to Howard County in 2008 includes a mix of residential, commercial and retail development to create a more urban, pedestrian-friendly downtown.

General Plan Amendment Passes

Two years after the submission of a master plan for Downtown the Howard County Council passes the amendment to allow for the development of Downtown.

General Growth Properties goes through bankrupt

General Growth Properties goes through bankruptcy reorganization and Howard Hughes Corporation emerges as the developer of Columbia’s new downtown.

Redevelopment of Wilde Lake Village Center begins

Columbia’s first village center begins major changes to the design and makeup of the center in 2013 including the addition of the apartment complex Alta Vista at Wilde Lake.

Whole Foods opens

The first evidence of a revitalized Downtown is the opening of Whole Foods occupying the building that was the headquarters of The Rouse Company.

Merriweather Post Pavilion gets a facelift

Major renovations to the iconic cultural amenity in Columbia ushers in a new era of ownership as the developer Howard Hughes Corporation hands over the ownership to the Downtown Arts and Culture Commission.