Columbia’s oldest high-rise being demolished to make way for more development

By Len Lazarick

With wrecking ball swinging and clouds of dust flying, Columbia’s first high-rise office building, the 52-year-old American Cities Building, is being demolished to make way for the next phase of the town’s urban core.

On Friday, a longtime friend and I were sitting at Clyde’s, outdoors at the table closest to the deconstruction site. Despite water being sprayed on the building, clouds of dust floated through the trees over the lakefront as the wrecking ball pounded the upper floors. Fortunately, the thundering noise was not constant, as workers paused to cut a steel girder with a torch.

The American Cities building as it looked in 1967 before most of Columbia was built. Columbia Archives photo

Like many longtime Columbia residents, my friend was nostalgic about this relatively undistinguished piece of 1960s architecture. Her late husband’s first office had been there and, for decades, the charity she had founded had its post office box on the ground floor she had visited hundreds of times.

The building has been vacant a couple of years, and Howard County Fire and Rescue had used it recently for training. It will be replaced by a mixed-use complex shown conceptually in the accompanying architects rendering.

More tears will be shed no doubt when the old three-story Exhibit Center is torn down. The Exhibit Center, also one of Columbia’s first buildings, a simple structure designed in his youth by the now-famed architect Frank Gehry, was for thousands of future residents their first experience of Jim Rouse’s vision of Columbia.

Gehry’s later design of the Rouse Co. headquarters on the lakefront, now repurposed as a Whole Foods store, will remain.

Before the county planning board last year, there was substantial opposition to allowing some of the proposed buildings to be as high as 15 stories. Howard Hughes Corp. and its consultants said the buildings would be stepped down as shown in the illustration.

Here’s a link to the Howard County Planning Board’s summary of the testimony on the proposed downtown redevelopment and its approval of the plans as submitted.

An architect’s illustration of how Columbia along Lake Kittamaqundi might look, numbered to identify some of the buildings. 1. Where the American Cities Building is being demolished; 2. The Teacher’s Building, where Clyde’s has occupied the ground floor for 44 years. It will remain standing; 3. The former Exhibit Center will be replaced by a three- to four-story building; many of the proposed buildings are a mix of residential, retail and office uses; 4. The Rouse building, now a Whole Foods store, will remain; 5. The current luxury apartments at Little Patuxent Square; 6. Buildings will replace the current parking garage and closed restaurant; 7. The Mall in Columbia.