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James Rouse: A Maryland Visionary

Oct 03, 2012 05:08PM ● By Anonymous

He lived by the credo "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood." He put it into action with his life's work—building malls and international festival marketplaces. He renewed cities and transformed suburban landscapes. Despising sprawl and haphazard development, he built structures that conformed to their environments and enhanced people's lives.

A sampling of his achievements: He was the first to build enclosed shopping malls such as New Jersey's Cherry Hill, which boasted a fountain, lush greenery, and contented pedestrians; he transformed the rot of Baltimore's Inner Harbor by building Harborplace, and Boston's benighted downtown by building Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Planning and building the city of Columbia in Howard County, Maryland was what catapulted him to fame in 1967.

The Early Days

What was it that inspired this man? His simple answer—Easton, Maryland. He wrote, "My belief that people grow best in small communities was inspired by my life in Easton."

He was born here in 1914 to Willard and Lydia Rouse and welcomed by five siblings and the town of 4,500 people. His father, a wealthy canned food broker, knew everyone in Easton. Everyone knew the family who lived in the eight-bedroom, three-story Victorian house called Brookletts. For 15 years, this home, filled with noise and laughter, was the center of James' life.

Yet misfortune intruded. While attending Easton's high school, he wrote an essay where he described his bout with polio when he was four. "My narrowest escape was when I was taken ill with Infantile Paralysis. The following night I found myself in a crib at Johns Hopkins Hospital..." Paralyzed, he stayed in the hospital for three months until he learned to walk again.

But polio only slowed him down. Soon he was off and running— his restless energy channeled into high school sports. He loved track, football, and basketball. Although the popular student became class president and editor of the Easton High School paper, he almost failed math and Latin.

Courtesy Maria Gamper

His idyllic childhood crashed along with his father's business in 1929. The bank foreclosed on the house, which later burned down. Then his mother, suffering from chronic angina, and his father, from cancer, died within months of each other.

By 16, James was an orphan. His most prized possession was a pair of track shoes his sister Margaret bought for him after his siblings sent him to boarding school for a year.

What could have thwarted him, gave him strength and determination. "I had been put on my own at an early age, but I knew I could make it," he later wrote.

Struggling to Succeed

He made it through two years of college—his first at the University of Hawaii where he could get reduced tuition because a brother-in-law was a naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Even though he loved Hawaii's beauty and admired its racial diversity, he longed for home. "A plaintive wail for the Eastern Shore," he wrote. "Oh how I'd love to be back."

A scholarship to the University of Virginia got him through a second year, but James no longer wanted to be a financial burden to his siblings.

After moving to Baltimore, he applied for a job at a parking garage. "This job is very important to me," he told the boss. "I want to go to law school at night and this will be my only income, but I don't know how to drive." Jame persuaded the bemused boss to hire him and teach him to drive. Soon he was promoted to auditor.

Now financially able to enroll at University of Maryland Law School, he attended classes three evenings a week, plus working 100 hours. The exhausted student often catnapped during his first period class to compensate for his lack of nightly sleep.

When he managed to get a law clerk position at the newly established Federal Housing Administration, his increased salary enabled him to finish law school and earn the second highest score in the state on the bar exam. James Rouse was on his way.

Ever restless—tapping his feet while sitting behind his desk—his ambition and vision brought him from loan officer for a title company to creating his own mortgage company with a business partner named Hunter Moss.

But he had bigger plans. After serving as a naval officer in Hawaii during World War II, and returning to their successful mortgage company, he told Moss that he wanted to start a real estate development company.

"I wanted the opportunity to conceptualize developments with useful purposes and bring them into being," he once wrote. The partners parted ways amicably and James hired many of his navy friends to begin the Rouse Company—his life's career.

Back to the Eastern Shore

Now married with a wife named Libby and three children, he worked and traveled ceaselessly, always with another project looming. In 1957, he returned to his beloved Easton to build Talbotttown Shopping Center. Rouse insisted that this first shopping center on the Eastern Shore be built in the center of town and conform to Easton's colonial architecture. His son Jimmy remembers the opening ceremony, which included the governor and lots of speeches.

Probably after the hoopla, James took his family to Long Point, a small island in the Miles River, which he had bought with his brother Willard who was also his business partner.

Bouncing over the waves in a small Boston Whaler to reach their rustic cabins, his soaked family urged him to buy a bigger and better boat. Years later, the frugal multimillionaire bought an old workboat he christened Adequate.

Son Jimmy remembers the Thanksgivings spent at Riversley—his Aunt Dia's house on the Miles River. "We had the best family Thanksgivings and the best Eastern Shore cooking—oysters and wild game, which we ate in the glow of kerosene lanterns since there wasn't any electricity."

By 1967, Rouse was building Columbia, which would consist of nine villages—each centered around a shopping center and acres of greenbelt. Dominated by a town center, this unique city fostered his goal of creating racial and economic diversity and the small- town atmosphere he had experienced in Easton.

In 1973, he exercised an option to buy most of pristine Wye Island in Queen Anne's County with plans to develop a waterfront village, an inn, and a golf course. "Heresy!" cried the county commissioners and citizens."We want none of that here."

"He showed me Wye Island," his son Jimmy recalls, "and explained how he wanted to develop it. I thought what a shame it would be to develop this beautiful land."

A year later, Rouse admitted defeat, but ever optimistic he began other projects and Wye Island became a state park. He also married his second wife, Patty, after the strain of his hectic work schedule took its toll on his first marriage.

"They had such a special relationship," says Maria Gamper, Patty's daughter. "She went to work with him every day. After work, he'd cook dinner, and they would enjoy a glass of wine. Later, he'd riffle through his briefcase and keep working. They traveled everywhere together. "

In later years, they founded the Enterprise Foundation with the goal of providing and funding affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families. To date, this philanthropic organization has invested more than $11 billion dollars and provided 280,000 homes.

Rouse's Legacy

After Rouse transformed Baltimore by building Harborplace, he graced the August 24th, 1981 cover of Time Magazine. "Few cities anywhere can boast so dramatic a turnaround," the magazine proclaimed.

He humbly accepted the Medal of Freedom—the nation's highest civilian award—from President Clinton in 1995, who commended him for "healing the torn-out heart of American Cities."

On April 9th, 1996, Rouse's sharp mind, now weakened by Lou Gehrig's disease, was forever stilled. Patty found him slumped over in his wheelchair, in the kitchen of their modest Columbia townhouse. At age 81, he had been heading towards his work desk.

Anne McNulty is a frequent contributor to What's Up? Eastern Shore and would like to thank the Talbot County Historical Society and Columbia Archives for their reference materials.

Photo by Anne McNulty