This had been done once before in a suburb of Minneapolis, but that example had not been immediately copied. It was considered either an extravagance, affordable only because a powerful department store had built it, or a quirky comment on the harshness of Minnesota winters. Rouse was the first developer to build a mall, and it was his example that would be replicated all across the country. Over the doors to his creation outside Baltimore, Rouse erected steel letters that read “TO THE MALL,” and that term itself, “mall,” would become forever associated with this type of retail enclosure.
Rouse’s company would go on to build scores of malls all across North America. They would soon become as commonplace in the suburbs as the highway cloverleaf. Rouse identified with the merchants that opened stores in the malls, and indeed was quite a salesman himself, peddling his idea for new malls to financial backers and local government officials. But Rouse saw the mall as something more than just a profitable cluster of stores; he saw it as a community center for the suburbs – the modern version of the New England village green. He put churches and post offices in his malls. He was the first to create a central court in his malls, and then invited community groups to put on flower shows and local high school bands to play concerts.
In one internal memorandum, a Rouse employee tried to analyze why they were expending so much effort on something that did not directly cause the cash registers to ring. He jotted down such things as “customer loyalty,” “competitive edge,” and “enhancing the company’s prestige.” Rouse responded by crossing them all out and putting a number one by the last goal listed: “to conceive, design, and bring into being better places for people to live, to work, to shop.” The suburban mall is now seen by some as a crass monument to consumption, but Rouse, the mall’s creator, saw it “as a lively meeting place as well as a market place.” “The soundest economic base for a ‘main street’,” said Rouse of the mall, “is to make it an indispensable servant of the community.”
Rouse soon decided that he wanted to take this idea to its logical end. Instead of just building community centers in the form of shopping malls, Rouse wanted to build a complete community. In fact, he wanted to build an entire city. In 1963, he announced that he had bought about 20 square miles halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and that he was going to build a city. He described the undertaking as “a garden to grow people” – it was a wildly speculative real estate undertaking and a utopian dream. Rouse pulled it off.
He was aided by the ethos of the early 1960s. There was a sense that America was not perfect, but there was a persistent belief that it could be made so. Kennedy was promising a trip to the moon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was promoting peaceful racial integration. In this atmosphere, Rouse assembled a cadre of experts in housing, education, religion, ecology and other fields. He asked them to help design a city – to help the architects and planners incorporate the needs of people into the physical design
Rouse’s vision of the future did not have rocket pads or moving sidewalks, but it was nevertheless revolutionary. It was rare to find places in America where all the bits and pieces of community life were so thoughtfully arranged. Rouse also insisted that his new town be racially integrated, something that was unheard-of in 1963. The press loved the idea of building a city from scratch, and Columbia was widely hailed around the country. Life magazine ran a piece praising “The Messianic Master Builder.” People flocked to Rouse to help him build the new town. Among them were Jim Ryan, who founded Ryland Homes, now one of the country’s largest homebuilding companies, and Frank Gehry, the architect who later gained fame for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.