09 August 2008

Symphony Woods History

I have been thinking about Symphony Woods lately. Actually, I have been thinking about Symphony Woods A LOT lately. Currently, General Growth Properties has suggested placing a Small Cities Institute, the Columbia Association Headquarters, and a Library on the site. As can be noted in the Letters to the Editor on the Explore Howard website, some are none too pleased about this proposal.

Here in Columbia, nearly everything was something else before it became something. I have heard and read many people (including CA) refer to the “natural” setting in Symphony Woods. I say not so. Before being purchased in the mid 1960’s, the land that is most of town center was owned by a man named Isadore Gudelsky. An account of Mr. Gudelsky can be found in the book Creating a New City, edited by Robert Tennenbaum. The following passage appears in the Chapter Land Acquisition: The Realtor’s Perspective and written by the realtor employed by Rouse, Robert Moxley.

The Gudelsky family was in the sand and gravel business (known as Contee) as well as the concrete and asphalt business. They owned thousands of acres of land between Baltimore and Washington, which they mined for the aggregate existing thereon.

They always bought land, but never sold any. They would, however, develop commercial buildings on it once the sand and gravel had been removed. Isadore Gudelsky was the administrator, so to speak, of all the family businesses while his brother, Homer, was in charge of operations. Another brother, Henry was in the concrete block business. Most of the Guldelsky land was titled in the family name or Contee or Percon, but it was all generally referred to as Contee property.

One of the parcels Contee owned was located on U.S. 29 in the very center of the targeted 15,000 acres being purchased by the Howard Research and Development Corporation (HRD), as the successor to CRD. Further, it was the planned location of the town center of the new city. Of course, Isadore Gudelsky was aware of the buying spree being conducted in Howard County, but he did not know for what purpose or by whom.


Another account of the land owned by Gudelsky can be found in the book Columbia and the New Cities, by Gurney Breckenfeld (1972):

“At last,” says Jack Jones, “we came to the Big Bear, Isidore Gudelsky. He wanted $5 million for his 1000 acres. By this time it was obvious that a big land assembly was going on, and he was a shrewd bargainer.” Moxley saw Gudelsky several times, usually in his auto, in a restaurant, or a drugstore. On Jones’s instructions, Moxley offered $1,750,000 in a property swap. Gudelsky allowed that maybe he’d take $4 million. “Finally,” says Jones, “I told Moxley that this deal had to be done.” It was an understatement. Unbeknown to him, Gudelsky held the key Columbia land: the town center, symphony hall, glade, lake site, and shopping district.


Based on these sources, it appears that the land that was used for Lake Kittamaquandi, the mall, and Symphony Woods was used as a surface mine prior to the purchase by Jim Rouse. Given the state of sand a gravel mines (full disclosure, in college I worked for a contractor at the site of the last remnants of the Contee empire, Laurel Sand and Gravel, off Van Dusen Road in Laurel, MD. I performed soil compaction tests to ensure the land was buildable for the future town of Konterra), there are very few trees or vegetation present. It’s mostly, sand and gravel.

My point here is that people who assume the current state of Symphony Woods as a natural setting is somewhat misplaced. Like much of Columbia, I believe, based on the sources above, that the grading and plant life in Symphony Woods may be an entirely man-made artifact. Some may argue that allowing much of the land to lay fallow for four decades has effectively returned the land to a natural state, but this is most likely not its history.

Moreover, although the Symphony Woods parcel appears large to human eyes, both on the ground and viewed on a map, it is a relatively small parcel in terms of an ecosystem. Because of this, the site must be actively managed to ensure a viable space.

6 comments:

Tom said...

Are you applying for a job as a producer for "Myth Busters"?

Just the facts, Just the facts.

B. Santos said...

If they move M5 to the Oakland Ridge Industrial Park, er...Oakland Ridge Business Center, I would love to be associated with the show.

Alan said...

Hi Bill, Interesting material. I have another thought to ponder. What other uses has Symphony Woods been placed under in the past? I know of a petting zoo, "Wine in the woods" of course, but I was looking for something more permanent like the zoo. Anybody know?

wordbones said...

Symphony Woods was also once home to an experimental "bubble building" constructed by Antioch College.

A bad north easter bought about its untimely demise.

-wb

alan said...

Hi Wordbones, I got excited about this bubble structure and did some research. It was designed by Rurik F Ekstrom for the Columbia Campus of the Antioch College. It was inflated on Nov 4th, 1972 and the interior was complete enough to move offices into in May 1973, sad note is that it lasted only a year. It covered roughly one acre, 32,400 square feet and from the description on [http://inbetweennoise.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html] "in terms of a learning environment, there were many innovative approaches conceived by the architect with the students in 1971 : the interior space was completely modular with both open and enclosed spaces (including small geodesic domes to enclose lectures and create private space), the interior was still connected to the outside world and thus could be continually landscaped and re-landscaped (and reshaped), and the vinyl skin of the dome could be rolled back in various areas so that inside and outside became interchangeable depending on weather."

sounds really cool. I have some pictures of the structure if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

"Currently, General Growth Properties has suggested placing a Small Cities Institute, the Columbia Association Headquarters, and a Library on the site [Symphony Woods]."

I believe you omitted mentioning the 'suggestion' also includes 'placing' several roads into and entirely through Symphony Woods as well.

Small Cities Institute? Put it in another floor on top of HCC, a more space efficient and more energy efficient siting, and reap the benefits of all-the-more concentrated collegiate academia. There's no need to sacrifice a portion of Symphony Woods to put a building for this very optional institute.

(Columbia, however, instead of adding this optional institute, could invest those ongoing taxpayer-borne costs into academic resources that better address our community's current and future needs.)

CA Headquarters? It should be placed where there is available, already developed (brownfield) space, perhaps even distributed among satellite offices at each village center (Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake, and Harper's Choice already do have CA facilities adjacent to their village centers), thereby:
- making CA office visits more convenient and accessible to Columbia's population,
- allowing shorter and more eco-friendly commutes for its staff,
- and promoting Columbia's village center model.
There's absolutely no need to sacrifice a portion of Symphony Woods' open space for an administration building. None.

Library? Central Columbia has one already. Renovate the existing one, don't waste park land, materials, and taxpayer resources building a new one. A true showcase library is best judged by the quality of its collection and staff (investing more in both would pay much better dividends to the community), not by its cover.

On to the assumption (that a sand and gravel pit was there) ->

"They owned thousands of acres of land between Baltimore and Washington, which they mined for the aggregate existing thereon."

"Based on these sources, it appears that the land that was used for Lake Kittamaquandi, the mall, and Symphony Woods was used as a surface mine prior to the purchase by Jim Rouse."


A surface mine previously existed within Symphony Woods? Very doubtable

How do you make the jump from the Gudelsky's having purchased and owned that land at one time to then concluding that surface mining took place on the parcel that became part of Town Center and, more specifically, within what became Symphony Woods?

Unlikely Based on Economics & Demographics
The commercially-astute Gudelskys, as you noted, had other parcels, closer to the major cities' development projects and probably adjacent to much better roads (US 1 being one of them) at the time. Economically, it would have made little sense to mine a further-out, less accessible spot in Columbia in the midst of a very sparsely-populated agrarian county, when aggregate was available and more accessible closer to then cities/projects/customers/populations.

Unlikely Based on Geology
Physically, the geology of Town Center is significantly different from Contee's sites in P.G. County, making Town Center's land a far, far less attractive candidate, resource- and cost-wise, for sand and gravel production. (Most of Howard County, including all of Columbia, lies in the Northern Piedmont vs. almost the entirety of P.G. County being within the Northern Coastal Plain.)

Northern Coastal Plain Geology
Per USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, "Most of this area is underlain by unconsolidated sand, silt, and clay sediments deposited in the near-shore environment of late Cretaceous seas. The rise and fall of sea level resulted in sand deposits separated by layers of clay and silt. High winds during periods of maximum glacial advance redeposited some of the sandy and silty sediments downwind. In addition, these sediments are sorted downwind from coarsest to finest and from thickest to thinnest. The north and west boundary of this MLRA almost parallels the “fall line” on the eastern seaboard. The fall line separates the bedrock of the interior uplands and the Coastal Plain. The Coastal Plain sediments are a source of ground water for the large cities built just below the fall line in this area. Southeast Maryland and New Jersey are covered by unconsolidated gravel deposited in the Tertiary and reworked by the Quaternary seas and erosion. This reworking left a pebble line as a pedisediment marker that separates the older deposits from the more recent eolian depositions. Glauconite is a common mineral in many of the unconsolidated sediments in the Northern Coastal Plain. Some gabbro, serpentite, Precambrian metamorphic rocks, and Triassic red shale are exposed along the extreme western edges of this area. The fall line is irregular, so some of the crystalline rocks that occur west of the fall line also occur in this area."

(In other words, the Northern Coastal Plain has lots of sand, gravel, and clay, created by being low enough long ago to have rock finely ground up and considerable sedimentary deposits by prehistoric seas.)

Northern Piedmont Geology
Also per USDA's NRCS, "Most of this area is above the “fall line” on the east coast. The fall line is the boundary between Coastal Plain sediments and the crystalline bedrock of the interior uplands. The eastern third of the area is underlain mainly by Lower Paleozoic to Precambrian sediments and igneous rocks that have been metamorphosed. The typical rock types in this part of the MLRA are granite, gabbro, gneiss, serpentinite, marble, slate, and schist. The central part of the area is a crustal trough or basin that formed during the Triassic period. This basin represents the ancestral Atlantic Ocean that formed when the European-African continental plate began its movement westward from the North American plate. Many of the rocks in this part of the MLRA are the same rocks as those in the western British Isles, since they were deposited at a time when the North American, European, and African plates were all one landmass. The rocks deposited in the basins include Triassic sandstone, shale, and conglomerate. These ancient basins have been uplifted and are now in the uplands in this MLRA. Numerous Jurassic diabase and basalt dikes and sills cut the sedimentary rocks in the basins. The far western part of this MLRA is underlain mostly by Cambrian to Silurian limestone. The northern boundary of the MLRA marks the southernmost extent of the Wisconsin glaciers. Earlier periods of glaciation extend farther south in north-central New Jersey and in eastern Pennsylvania. Unconsolidated stream alluvium (primarily sand and gravel) fills the major river valleys."

(In other words, the Northern Piedmont, being too high to have been ground up by prehistoric seas, is full of bedrock and hard rock deposits, the one exception being recently-generated (geologically) alluvium (sand and gravel in major river valleys). Symphony Woods is not in a river valley, it being at elevations ranging from 340-370 feet, whereas the Little Patuxent River along US 29 is at less than 300 feet. Nor would it have made sense to do sand and gravel extraction even just to the southeast in such a narrow river valley, where deposits would be limited and operations subject to interruption from recurring flooding.)

There are only two small portions of the far more sand/gravel/clay rich Northern Coastal Plain in Howard County that lie west of I-95: one being a mile-radius hemisphere along MD 216 extending to about Leishear Road at an elevation of about 170-300 feet, the other being a ½x½x1 mile triangle at the Baltimore County boundary just north of Elkridge, where the elevation ranges from 100-200 feet. The former Contee sand and gravel operation (now Konterra) in P.G. County was in the Northern Coastal Plain at an elevation of 160-340 feet.

Unlikely Based on Cartography
Here's a 1949 Army Corps of Engineers map that shows Symphony Woods as being literally greenspace (except for a few homes? barns?, some of which are still within Merriweather), not shown as a sand and gravel pit, not labeled as mine, quarry, or any other mineral extraction operation.

Earlier geological survey maps, going back 20 years at a clip back into the 1800's, also show no such surface mining at that location. There's little chance the Gudelskys had a sand and gravel operation in Columbia predating these other maps since the Gudelskys' Contee Sand and Gravel business didn't get started until 1913.

Unlikely Based on Columbia's Planning
Your conclusion that it was surface mined could only be reconciled to the 1949 map above if the surface mining of that land happened after 1949. But then if HRD bought it just 15 years thereafter in the '60's, it certainly wouldn't have had a mature forest worthy of designating it as the spot to put an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by natural forested woodlands.

Notes gathered by Hoppenfeld's and Tannenbaum's walking land surveys in preparation for Columbia's planning mark Symphony Woods as forested and describe it as follows: "great hill top park, clear areas between fine trees, fine ???? views from hill and park area". Those walking surveys' close observations, per Barbara Kellner's book, were done to capture such important details. Perhaps that's one more reason the first of four Columbia's listed goals is "respect the land".

From your post: "Gudelsky held the key Columbia land: the town center, symphony hall, glade, lake site, and shopping district."

A glade is an open space in a forest. In other words, the Gudelskys' land included a forest in Town Center, within which the glade could very well have been the intended site of Merriweather's lawn, to be cut from and surrounded by existing forest (renamed Symphony Woods).

"Here in Columbia, nearly everything was something else before it became something. I have heard and read many people (including CA) refer to the “natural” setting in Symphony Woods. I say not so."

Unlikely Based on Aerial Photography
But aerial photo maps from 1966 say "so", too, showing Symphony Woods (and Merriweather's site) as still green space, with mature trees, leaving insufficient time between the 1949 map's greenspace and the '66 aerial photos' forest for your assumed surface mining and regrowing a forest. The forest shown in the aerial map covering what's now Symphony Woods also stretched in other directions, too, including across where now sit the Mall, scenic Governor Warfield Parkway, and some of the Village of Wilde Lake.

And immediately surrounding those lands in the aerial photo map are farms, not surface mines. Other large (not nearly nothing) contiguous forests are also shown in close proximity, within other portions of Town Center, Hickory Ridge, Oakland Mills, and elsewhere, some of them having boundaries matching Howard County's original land grants. Such fidelity to original land grant borders is a feature sometimes indicative of those forests' portions having remained intact from prior to European agrarian activities.

"My point here is that people who assume the current state of Symphony Woods as a natural setting is somewhat misplaced. Like much of Columbia, I believe, based on the sources above, that the grading and plant life in Symphony Woods may be an entirely man-made artifact. Some may argue that allowing much of the land to lay fallow for four decades has effectively returned the land to a natural state, but this is most likely not its history."

A more likely explanation, based on the '49 map and '66 aerial photo details referenced above, would be the Gudelskys purchased the land for future projects or for rural residence, but didn't surface mine it before selling it. Like the Gudelskys, Kingdon Gould (another development tycoon) also owned land that became part of Columbia, and much of Gould's Columbia land went straight from farmland and undeveloped land to becoming part of Columbia.

Similar skepticism should be given to the claim of Antioch College's Symphony Woods siting. Just where in Symphony Woods is it being claimed that it was located? Unless somehow wrapped around existing tree trunks, a 34,000 square foot dome (about 185'x185' or 100'x340' or 50'x680') would not fit in any of Symphony Woods still forested areas. Perhaps it was actually not within Symphony Woods, but nearby on one of the clearings on adjacent now-GGP property? Ekstrom, the dome's architect, at the May '73 National Conference on Air Structures held there, stated, quite directly, the dome's intended impermanence would make it easy to return the site to being a meadow. Symphony Woods apparently had no meadows of that size just prior to Antioch College or just after it either, but some adjacent now-GGP lands did.

Based on the age of the trees that are in Symphony Woods (and some of those trees inside Merriweather's fence that haven't been cut down during its operation - again see Barbara Kellner's book), it is possible that a portion of the land's forests was cleared for timber at one time, perhaps in the early- to mid-1800's, with the forest replanted or naturally regrowing thereafter. Such timber clearing would have been primarly for fueling this region's iron foundries, but what forest had thrived well up to and through 13,500 years of Susquehannock and other Native American inhabitance, then lasted only less than 150 years of European/colonial stewardship before being depleted as ample fuel for those foundries or being cleared land for farming.

Thankfully, nature in many instances can heal itself, or be helped to where necessary. But such healing is thwarted when ecosystems become isolated by development that segments contiguous natural areas into isolated portions, thereby imperiling habitats and eliminating safe wildlife movement corridors.

Franklin Township, NJ, ranked higher on Money Magazine's list of small cities than Columbia, has succeeded in preserving a 500-acre old-growth virgin forest. Here we are now, finding it difficult to maintain just one small portion of ours, only 40 years ago designated as "permanent open space", that designation not because those wild spaces were created just then at Columbia's outset, but because they predated Columbia and were rightly recognized at the time as being an environmental asset worthy of preservation. I think we can do better.