Now that the Chrysalis has been created

19 minute read

Looking up at the trees of Symphony Woods from the Chrysalis alpha stage. (Click for a higher-resolution version.) At the top of the hill is the location for the planned Butterfly guest services building. Image © 2017 Frank Hecker; available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

tl;dr: I have some final thoughts after completing my series on the Chrysalis and the background to its creation.

My previous post marked the end of my series “Creating the Chrysalis”. After twelve articles and a few hundred hours of writing I’m ready to take a break from writing about the Chrysalis and Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, although I’ll continue to support the work of the Inner Arbor Trust through my volunteer efforts (as at the recent Wine in the Woods event) and my donations.

However before I leave these topics (at least for now) I thought I’d take the opportunity to sum up my thoughts and opinions on the things I’ve been writing about. So without further ado here are some things I found noteworthy:

The neglect of Symphony Woods

For a tract of land that’s been the subject of so much attention and professed adoration these past few years, it’s really amazing to me how little a role Symphony Woods played in the life of Columbia for most of its history. Other than people crossing the property to get to Merriweather Post Pavilion, very little happened in Symphony Woods in the first 25 years of Columbia—even things associated with Symphony Woods in people’s minds, like the petting zoo and the Maryland Renaissance Festival, were mostly if not entirely located on the adjacent Rouse Company property and not in Symphony Woods proper.

1993 marked the first year in which more than token attention was paid to Symphony Woods, with the beginning of Wine in the Woods and attempts by Cy Paumier and others at LDR International to persuade the Columbia Association to develop Symphony Woods as a park. But again, nothing significant happened for another ten years, as proposals for a new park fell on deaf ears.

By 2003 Symphony Woods was completely absent from the Columbia Association’s list of (19!) strategic priorities (the outcome of an intensive two-year planning effort), and the LDR International proposal was so forgotten that Ken Ulman and Joshua Feldmark apparently stumbled onto it later that year like archaeologists discovering a long-lost civilization.

The lasting influence of GGP

This atmosphere of general disinterest in Symphony Woods was lifted only when a few years later General Growth Properties proposed its own plans for downtown Columbia, including building a road and various civic structures on the CA-owned Symphony Woods property. The resulting reactions from CA and others, along with the concurrent controversy over the proposal for a 23-story luxury condominium building near the lakefront (now the site of Little Patuxent Square), energized activists of all stripes to weigh in on the future of downtown Columbia in general and Symphony Woods in particular.

Whatever one’s opinions on the actual details, I think it’s clear that GGP’s proposals were the first attempts at serious planning for Columbia since the earliest days of the planned community, including reviving Jim Rouse’s practice of consulting outside experts in multiple disciplines. Many of the ideas for downtown Columbia we now take for granted first originated with GGP or in the parallel (and symbiotic?) Howard County planning effort.

This includes in particular the concept of an overall neighborhood encompassing Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the idea of that neighborhood (which GGP referred to simply as “Merriweather”) as “a new kind of cultural park where the landscape becomes a setting for arts, cultural and civic uses”. To my knowledge this language first appeared in GGP’s proposed General Plan Amendment from 2008 (see page 12) before being written into law as part of the Downtown Columbia Plan in 2010 (see page 13).

Not all of GGP’s ideas were so felicitous. One bad idea that refused to die was trying to establish some sort of linear or otherwise formally geometric connection between The Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Such a scheme was previously hinted at in the north-south “Corporate Boulevard” envisioned in the county’s 2006 draft master plan for downtown Columbia (see for example page 2.2) and in the “major promenade-style walkway” from the Mall to Symphony Woods mentioned in the 2007 Downtown Columbia: A Community Vision (page 23).

However its fullest expression was in GGP’s 2008 plan, which included a linear “Merriweather Connection to Symphony Overlook”, complete with associated buildings, from Little Patuxent Parkway all the way to Merriweather Post Pavilion (see the illustration on page 53).

The idea of putting buildings and roads in Symphony Woods between The Mall in Columbia and Merriweather Post Pavilion was soundly rejected, but the allure of a north-south axis between the two lived on, most notably in the Symphony Woods Park plan created by Cy Paumier and his associates—even if it meant cutting a significant number of trees to fit in a formal pathway geometry.

The idea of a formal mall-pavilion axis didn’t receive significant pushback until the Design Advisory Panel and Planning Board reviewed the Symphony Woods Park proposal, and wasn’t killed off entirely until the creation of the Inner Arbor plan, with its philosophy of meandering pathways and tree preservation.

Why classical music left Merriweather Post Pavilion

I had originally planned for the timeline post to focus solely on Symphony Woods, the Inner Arbor plan, and the construction of the Chrysalis. However I soon decided that Merriweather Post Pavilion was integral to the overall history (just as it’s integral to the overall vision for Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods), and so it was worth doing a parallel set of items discussing what was going on with the pavilion.

The conventional narrative about Merriweather Post Pavilion goes something like this: It was created as a home for the National Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra subsequently went bankrupt, and then the pavilion was permanently taken over by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin. This conventional narrative is not entirely wrong, but it omits some interesting wrinkles.

First, as best as I can determine the National Symphony Orchestra never went bankrupt. It did have financial difficulties and labor issues (including a musicians strike), and those problems did result in the NSO’s 1970 summer season almost being cancelled. However the NSO did survive (in fact, it still exists) and it continued to play concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion, at least for a while.

I suspect that what really caused the National Symphony Orchestra to abandon Merriweather Post Pavilion was the opening (in 1971) of Filene Center at Wolf Trap Farm in northern Virginia (now Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts). Filene Center was a more elaborate facility closer to Washington DC, and was lavishly subsidized both by U.S. taxpayers and by its namesake, Catherine Filene Shouse. (Compare Shouse to fellow heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who famously never gave a dime to support Merriweather Post Pavilion after Rouse named it for her.)

However the National Symphony Orchestra’s decamping to northern Virginia did not mark either the end of classical music at Merriweather Post Pavilion or its final takeover by rock acts. Instead, by means of some hefty subsidies the Rouse Company was able to entice the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to begin playing summer concerts at the pavilion, starting in 1974. The BSO went on to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion for several years.

Like the National Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was also lured away from Merriweather Post Pavilion, this time by the promise of a new performance center in Oregon Ridge Park north of Baltimore (off I-83 near Hunt Valley) and the efforts of Baltimore County Executive Donald Hutchinson and BSO patron Joseph Meyerhoff. Despite at least two attempts that promise never materialized. Nevertheless the BSO left Merriweather Post Pavilion for good after the 1981 summer season.

(Howard County chauvinism compels me to add that the BSO’s performance space in Oregon Ridge Park is no great shakes; it looks like nothing more than an upgraded version of the amphitheater at Centennial Park.)

In the meantime, during the BSO years the Rouse Company also tried to keep rock acts away from Merriweather Post Pavilion, as the pavilion played host to a parade of middlebrow pop stars like Engelbert Humperdinck and Perry Como. Rock acts eventually came back, but then in 1995 northern Virginia gave birth to another Merriweather Post Pavilion competitor, Nissan Pavilion (later, and unfortunately, renamed Jiffy Lube Live).

In the end the story of Merriweather Post Pavilion is not just that of the decline of classical music and the rise of rock, though that’s certainly a factor. I think it’s also a function of Howard County’s occupying a somewhat-awkward position between Washington and Baltimore, and not being the beneficiary of patronage from the cultural and political power brokers of either.

Thus Merriweather Post Pavilion’s continued survival has relied, and I think will continue to rely, primarily on the willingness of Howard County residents to support the pavilion both directly and indirectly. This includes the pavilion renovations (partly funded by the county), the work of the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (also partly county-funded), and of course the county’s contributions toward realizing the larger vision of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.

Beyond Jim Rouse and the “pioneers”

With this year marking the 50th birthday of Columbia we’ll hear a lot about Jim Rouse and his role in creating Columbia, and likely also a lot about the “pioneers”, those individuals and families who were the first residents of the newly-created community. Given that, I think it’s appropriate to spare a thought for two other groups of people who won‘t be highlighted quite as much in these celebrations.

The first is the Howard County commissioners who gave Rouse the green light to proceed with the development of Columbia, along with the county government personnel who cooperated with the Rouse Company in getting it planned and built. The commissioners in particular paid a heavy price for their role in creating Columbia, as the rapid influx of new residents tilted the voter population heavily toward Democratic-voting Columbia residents and led to a takeover of the county’s political establishment that sidelined the previous generation of politicians. (For more on this process see my book Dividing Howard: A History of County Council Redistricting in Howard County, Maryland.)

The second (and for our present purposes more important) group is the new generation of politicians, civic leaders, and activists who came to prominence in the first decade of the 21st century. In particular 2006 marked the election of Ken Ulman as Howard County executive, as well as the election of a completely new set of County Council members: Calvin Ball, Greg Fox, Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa, and Courtney Watson.

The “class of 2006” remained intact and at the helm of Howard County government for the next eight years, during which the foundations for the future of downtown Columbia were laid, including the creation of the 2010 Downtown Columbia General Plan, detailed planning for the Crescent property inherited by the Howard Hughes Corporation from the Rouse Company and GGP, the agreement for and funding of renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the pavilion’s transfer to the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, and (last but not least from our point of view) the funding of the Inner Arbor Trust’s work on the Chrysalis after the Columbia Association board’s approval of the Inner Arbor plan.

That work has continued under the new administration of Allan Kittleman, with four out of the five “class of 2006” council members continuing to serve through 2018. (Courtney Watson resigned from the council to run unsuccessfully for County Executive against Kittleman.) Recent events have included the Tax Increment Financing plan for the Crescent development (or as Howard Hughes has taken to calling it, the Merriweather District), more funding for the Chrysalis, and (beyond downtown) plans for the village centers.

Also worthy of note are people who are not elected officials (at least, not yet) but who fill key leadership roles within Howard County and help knit together the civic fabric of the county. There are too many of these people to list them all, and I don’t want to slight anyone by not mentioning them, so I’ll simply say that you can find this next generation serving on government boards and commissions, serving as executive directors and board members of nonprofit organizations, and otherwise advocating for a positive future for Columbia and Howard County. You can also find some of their activities and achievements highlighted in my previous timeline post.

I hope that when Columbia celebrates its 100th birthday this second generation of Columbia and Howard County leaders will be given due recognition for their roles in creating the new Columbia of the 21st century.

It pays to bring in the best

At the dedication of the Chrysalis Michael McCall called up to the podium three people whose input concerning technical requirements influenced the final form of the Chrysalis: Brad Canfield of I.M.A. (who provided an example “technical rider” from the EDM artist Skrillex), Toby Orenstein of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (who suggested the need for a smaller secondary stage), and Coleen West of the Howard County Arts Council (who was concerned that the stage floor to be springy enough for dance performances).

I’ve previously described the innovations inherent in the Chrysalis’s form as well as the demanding nature of the technical requirements put on it as a proposed venue for popular musical acts and theater and dance performances—-requirements due in large part to the suggestions of Canfield, Orenstein, and West. As many an IT shop and defense contractor has learned to its regret, combining visionary technology with stringent and often evolving requirements can be a recipe for disaster.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen with the Chrysalis. (If it had I would have written a very different series, or perhaps no series at all.) In my opinion the reason why it didn’t happen is the overall high quality of the design, engineering, fabrication, and construction team put together by the Inner Arbor Trust: when potential problems arose there were people available who knew what they were doing and were able to work with others on the team to produce a successful outcome.

Bringing in the best possible people and organizations to get something done isn’t exactly a new thing in Howard County. The Rouse Company’s 1964 presentation on Columbia lists over sixty consultants and advisors that Jim Rouse sought out for help in planning the new city—not just from Washington and Baltimore but from all over the U.S.

The bottom line is that it pays to go for the best, both in the quality of the final product and in the avoidance of obstacles to producing it. That’s a lesson to keep in mind as we look to the future phases of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods. We’re fortunate to have a beautiful design for the next major park feature, the Butterfly guest services building, created by the upcoming Brooklyn-based firm nARCHITECTS (recently named #9 for design in the Architect Magazine 2016 Top 50 list). Hopefully the Inner Arbor Trust will be able to attract the funding necessary to get that design realized as it was originally envisioned.

Local news and the risk of losing our history

The celebration of Columbia’s 50th birthday will also feature artifacts and documents collected by the Columbia Archives. The Archives has done a great job of preserving the early history of Columbia, and some of the fruits of that effort are available online, including its own timeline.

However the period of most interest to me is not the first decade or so of Columbia but rather the last decade or so, during which the future form of downtown Columbia was debated and plans for a park in Symphony Woods finally moved forward. For that period I relied almost totally on online sources both free and paid, and came to two conclusions:

The first is a cliché by now: that there is no substitute for professional news reporting done at the local level. Time after time I found myself consulting local newspapers, most notably the Baltimore Sun, in an effort to confirm what happened when and who said what about it.

Gone forever are the days when Howard County could support a multiple-person staff of Sun reporters, along with independent reporting from the Columbia Flier and Howard County Times. Now we’re lucky to have one person assigned to the Howard County beat, and those people typically move on to other things within a year or two. But I’m still grateful for what we have.

However, when it comes to researching the past (as opposed to following current affairs) our local papers do have some major disadvantages, for example, the lack of a usable online archive for older issues of the Columbia Flier and Howard County Times. And once you get beyond newspapers to other sources of online information the picture gets even worse.

For example, in some of my previous posts I linked to various documents on the Howard County government web site. Many of those links no longer work, victims of an apparent reorganization of the county’s internal document management system. Similarly, you can no longer find online records of many past Columbia Association board meetings, since CA’s board page now includes only meetings since January 2014. Even the Inner Arbor Trust’s extensive collection of construction photos and related materials is no longer visible due to a revamp of the Trust’s web site (although old links still work).

The list goes on: Looking for the web site that GGP used to promote its downtown plans? Gone, and preserved elsewhere only in fragments. How about online copies of presentations and other documents used in public meetings on proposed developments (e.g., pre-submission meetings, Design Advisory Panel meetings, and Planning Board meetings). Mostly never posted online, and now either sitting on a private hard drive somewhere or sent to the recycle bin. What about video recordings of those public presentations? Are you kidding me? Nobody bothered to film them.

The above may sound like the grumblings of a frustrated amateur historian, but I think it reflects a larger truth: For people living in and (especially) growing up in the 21th century, if something isn’t online and easily findable via search engines then it might as well not exist. How are our descendants going to celebrate the second fifty years of Columbia in 2067 if large chunks of the history of those years are lost forever, tossed in the digital dustbin?

I think this is so important a topic that I hope to post more on it later.

Questions and answers

Now for some semi-random questions and answers, in which I get to interview myself:

  • Q: Why did you write this series?

    A: Because I wanted to promote the work of the Inner Arbor Trust in creating Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, and because I thought it would be an interesting thing to research and write about. (And indeed it was.)

  • Q: How much time did you spend writing and researching the series?

    A: I have no idea. Probably a few hundred hours all told, given that each article took at least 10-20 hours from start to finish, and a few took significantly longer.

  • Q: Why didn’t you include links to the newpaper stories in your timeline post? After all, many of them can be read online at no charge.

    A: Because I ran out of time and energy. There are almost four hundred references in the timeline, and unfortunately many if not most of the newspaper stories either are not online or if online cannot be found by searching for the title of the story as it appeared in print.

  • Q: Do you plan to turn this series into a book?

    A: No. I’d be very surprised if the core readership of my blog exceeds one hundred people, and based on past experience the audience for any book would be an order of magnitude less than that. Reshaping the series into a book just isn’t worth the time that would be needed to do a good job of it.

  • Q: Is there anything you wish you’d included in the series but didn’t?

    A: Yes. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I heard the story (from Kevin Day of Living Design Lab) of why the Chrysalis shingles have four different colors (and not, for example, three colors or five): it’s because there were four large coils of sheet aluminum used in fabricating the shingles, with each coil assigned a different color.

  • Q: What’s your opinion on the future of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods?

    A: I think the Inner Arbor Trust is in good hands, and I’m content to simply sit back and let Nina Basu and the Trust’s board decide how best to pursue funding and constructing the remaining phases of the park.

  • Q: What will you write about now?

    A: I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to talk about them yet. As Jason Booms of the local blog Spartan Considerations puts it, “stay tuned, as more will follow” (but not necessarily that soon).

Thanks and acknowledgements

To conclude this post I want to thank the many people without whom creating this series would have been impossible, or at least much more difficult than it was:

  • The reporters of the Baltimore Sun and the Columbia Flier, especially those who covered downtown Columbia developments (including those related to Symphony Woods) in the GGP and Howard Hughes eras, including (in chronological order) Laura Cadiz, Larry Carson, Janene Holzberg, June Arney, Lindsey McPherson, Sarah Toth, David Greisman, Luke Lavoie, Amanda Yeager, and Fatima Waseem. (Luke Lavoie’s work was especially important, accounting for over ten percent of the almost four hundred sources I cite.)

  • Marc Fornes and THEVERYMANY, who graciously gave me permission to reproduce a broad collection of renderings and photographs of both the Chrysalis and other THEVERYMANY projects, along with Zahner, Arup, and Living Design Lab, who also contributed various illustrations.

  • The Columbia Archives and Columbia Association staff, for providing online access to key historical documents.

  • And, finally, Michael McCall, whose thorough documentation of the work of the Inner Arbor Trust made this project tractable, and whose comments and suggestions helped make the series as comprehensive and accurate as possible—and, of course, whose work in creating and implementing the Inner Arbor plan meant that there was something for me to write about in the first place.

And with that I’m signing off for now…

After all the time I spent working on the series, I couldn’t resist leaving my own mark on the Chrysalis stage. (So can you.)