The keeper of Columbia’s past

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Robert Friedman
For nearly three decades, Barbara Kellner has immersed herself in the archives of Columbia’s past — from planning documents and blueprints, to personal papers and newspaper clips. She started working at the archives as a volunteer, and rose to the position of Columbia Archives Director, where she remains the city’s historian and chronicler, having written two books about the city.
Photo by Frank Klein

The urban planners come from Korea, China, Belarus, California and Pennsylvania, all wanting to know the same thing: “How did Columbia do it?”

How were some 15,000 acres of farm land turned into a city of 100,000 residents often rated, along with nearby Ellicott City, as one of the most livable communities anywhere?

The questions are put to Columbia Archives Director Barbara Kellner, who then pulls from the file cabinets and drawers the planning documents and blueprints, the personal papers and committee reports, the organizational records, photos, posters, maps, builders’ brochures, surveyors’ plots, newspapers, artwork, etc. — all held in a room located off the lobby in a building on Wincopin Circle.

The archives, now under the aegis of the quasi-government Columbia Association, started as a community initiative in 1983, some 16 years after the birth of Columbia. It grew to a community institution through the donation of materials from those who helped plan, develop and build the unincorporated community.

Kellner, a native of the New York City borough of Queens, started volunteering at the archives when she moved to Columbia in 1983. She is now the go-to woman for those who want to know the history of, and the perspective on, what James Rouse and others shaped into 10 villages after purchasing property from 150 landowners in the mid-1960s.

An accidental historian

Kellner, who graduated from Farleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey with a degree in English, says, “I’ve become an historian by default.”

After coming to Columbia when her husband was transferred for business reasons to the area, she volunteered at the archives, deciding it would be the best way to learn about her new community. They raised two children here, and she became a full-time employee at the archives in 1995. Her husband died in 1999.

Now, after nearly three decades of immersing herself in Columbia’s story, she is the author of two books about Columbia. She is called upon to give talks at schools and in forums, and until recently hosted the local TV program, “Columbia Matters.” She still has a monthly segment on the show.

“Never in a million years did I think the work at the archives would become such an exceptional part of my life,” she said.

An inclusive community

Kellner is a believer in the Rouseian philosophy of an inclusive, diverse, planned living experience.

“Living in a community with that ethos has made me even more appreciative and embracing of the importance of economic, social and racial diversity,” she said.

From its inception, Columbia was developed for economic and racial diversity. A range of living units were built, from subsidized housing to custom-designed family homes. Rouse sent a memo to developers, realtors, builders and sales people that said, in part, “Simply stated, we are color blind.”

The realtors were told not to steer people to any one neighborhood. The people working at the exhibit center, which was open from 1967 to 1989 to attract residents, were both white and African-American, and everyone there was “up front, said Kellner, that the new community would be racially diverse.

Interfaith centers in the community offered religious diversity. Almost everything put out in writing by the town fathers — and mothers — accented the diversity goal and it soon became widely known.

She added that her children and many other young Columbians going to college have found this appreciation of diversity much more limited in other communities. But these children of Columbia have learned “a healthy respect for people just as people,” Kellner said, and they hopefully have spread what, for them, is an obvious message.

“Moving to Columbia has been life changing for a lot of people in very important ways,” she said.

The transplanted New Yorker agreed that the quirkiness quotient that could make for colorful experiences is lower in a planned community than in the big city  But, she noted, “because of the ideals Jim Rouse brought here, you have a pretty high percentage of interesting, well-educated people, which in the end, is what you want where you live.”

She added: “There are an amazing number of clubs and organizations of wide interests that people started of their own volition. Whatever you are interested in, you could probably find it here.”

Not quite utopia

Kellner acknowledged that not all of Rouse’s aspirations for the community have been reached. “The goal was for Columbia to be a complete city,” she said. “But we still lack some things.”

Among those deficiencies, she said, is good enough public transportation, both within the community, and to and from Baltimore and Washington.

“One of Rouse’s original ideas was for a three-prong system for getting around: walking, biking and public transportation. The latter has not been adequately developed,” she said.

Rouse also proposed a more fully developed downtown with more office and commercial space, the archivist said.

“Things got more spread out than originally envisioned,” she said, as “big box” and smaller complementary stores began congregating along I-95, with infrastructure and employment being drawn there rather than to the downtown area.

Also, Howard County Community College has become more spread out than originally planned, which has caused problems for the surprisingly large number of older adults taking courses, Kellner noted.

While Columbia lacks a central arts and cultural space, there are plenty of venues and activities around town, Kellner said. Furthermore, “plans exist,” she said, “to revitalize — no, make that to vitalize — downtown. It’s a challenge, but the plans are there.”

A cohesive moment for Columbia

Asked about significant happenings in Columbia’s history, Kellner pointed to the community’s reaction to a political event in 1968 as a “great moment.”

 In June of that year, as Columbia was getting ready to celebrate its first anniversary, most in the fledgling community of 5,000 residents were shocked to learn that George Wallace had been scheduled to speak at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Many of the original Columbians, and those who soon followed, had been active in the civil rights movement, Kellner said, and they, along with others, were “outraged” that the political rally for Alabama’s racist governor had been booked for their hometown.

Wallace’s appearance as a presidential candidate was set for barely two months after extensive riots heavily damaged parts of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Opponents of the rally met at Slayton House in Wilde Lake for a heated three-hour town meeting. The residents went on to take out ads in the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun headlined, “We have a dream — one America.”

The ad, addressed to Wallace, read, in part: “Although it is our opinion that you and your followers represent everything that the community of Columbia is against, we…maintain your right to speak in the city of Columbia because we believe in the fundamental right of freedom of speech.”

(Ironically, four years later, as he again ran for president, Wallace was shot and left paralyzed just 11 miles from Columbia, at the Laurel Shopping Center.)

Kellner noted that Rouse said later it was at that town house meeting where Columbia “found its soul.”

Kellner has poured her own heart and soul into learning about and living in Columbia. She has no plans to retire, or to live anywhere else.

“Columbia has enriched my life in so many ways,” she said. “It’s a great place to live, no matter what your age. I can’t see not living here.”