WILDE LAKE INTERFAITH CENTER, COLUMBIA, MD 1970

This project is one that I did not know a lot about before starting research for the blog.  Frank DiMella suggested that I take a look at the Religious Facilities Center we did down in Maryland.  This rather generic file name contained one of the more interesting programs and projects in the firm’s history. Today, known as the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, this thriving religious and community center is still in active use by two different congregations.

Located halfway between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Columbia, Maryland, was planned by visionary real estate developer James Rouse. Back in 1964, having acquired 14,000 acres of land in rural Howard County, The Rouse Company assembled a group of experts in the social sciences to consult with his staff about planning a new town.  This group included local and national religious planners to inform ways to integrate the spiritual life of the future residents into the new community.

Among the topics considered by religious planners was the allocation of land for religious buildings.  Understanding that each denomination would want space near the village center and realizing that this would entail acquiring large portions of the most expensive land, while impacting the daily vitality of the village centers, they proposed creating multi-religious facilities in central village locations.  The Rouse Company supported this concept as a way of conserving the valuable village center land and avoiding multiple large parking lots that would sit empty most of the week. To interest the religious leaders in the shared interfaith concept, the Company sold lots for interfaith centers at a fraction of the going rate for land in a village center.

The setting for the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center is a gentle rise in the rolling landscape overlooking townhouses and individual residences in the Village of Wilde Lake.  The building completes the village center quadrangle, expresses the diversity of its functions in the community, and provides a flexible framework for social, cultural and religious activities. The interfaith center concept was non-traditional and the building was consequently given a non-traditional form, encouraging experimentation with new liturgies and different forms of worship.

The Wilde Lake Interfaith Center is the first and largest of six interfaith centers to be built in Columbia.  When the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center opened in 1970 there were four Christian congregations as principal users:  Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and a joint United Methodist-Presbyterian congregation. Jewish congregations and the Unitarian Universalists were temporary renters. The Jewish congregations became members of Columbia’s second Interfaith Center in the village of Oakland Mills, which opened in 1975.  The Unitarian Universalists stayed a short time and ultimately became members of Columbia’s third Interfaith Center, Owen Brown, which opened in 1985.

The four Christian congregations in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center devised a complicated schedule to facilitate their many worship services on Sunday mornings.  The building was designed with a movable wall down the center of the bigger 600-seat room.  This worked while the congregations were small, but soon was impracticable for two services to be held simultaneously. The movable wall was later removed during a renovation. The Baptists and Lutheran congregations moved out of the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in 1997.  The Catholic congregation has grown to be very large, and holds three Masses in Spanish and five in English in the building every weekend. To accommodate this heavy usage at Wilde Lake, St. John’s Roman Catholic (SJRC) now uses the large 600-seat space exclusively, and alternates the use of the smaller 400-seat space with St. John’s United Methodist-Presbyterian (SJU).

The building was designed so that the two large worship spaces open onto a central lobby. The hope was that this would allow opportunity for the congregations to interact with each other as they made their way into and out of their respective services.  It still works that way—sometimes!  More often, there’s no opportunity for individuals to greet each other, as there is little time between the end of one service and the start of another.  The building is in use for worship services from early Saturday evening to early Sunday evening.

Community organizations rent the building for meetings during weekdays. In the early days the building contained the largest meeting rooms in all of Columbia, and was used extensively for major community events. The 600-seat room has hosted events as wide-ranging as talks by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 70’s to Garrison Keillor in more recent times. The 400-seat room has been the scene of diverse happenings from events for chamber music and foreign film societies, to New Year’s Eve parties and wedding receptions.

One of the distinctive features of the Interfaith Center is that it was designed with no overt religious symbolism either inside or outside so that the building could be comfortably used by different faiths. Ceilings in the worship spaces have a flexible lighting layout, adaptable for various seating arrangements, not predetermining any specific pattern for assembly or worship. Tall continuous clerestory windows provide daylight from all sides while permitting visual contact with the world outside.

THE WILDE LAKE INTERFAITH CENTER TODAY

Over the years, the growth of the Catholic congregation has led to the 600-seat space being used exclusively by the Catholics. As such there is a large crucifix above the altar and several other Catholic symbols, which can be removed to accommodate the needs of other worshippers or functions.

The building as originally designed had a minimum number of classroom spaces. However, to accommodate religious education space needs for its elementary students, the SJRC rents classrooms in the high school across the street. This is another example of the shared-use concept that utilizes buildings during their downtimes to avoid duplication of space and parking.

A 1990 renovation of the building added a wing to provide more space for staff offices and a reception area.  The original staff offices were turned into additional meeting rooms to meet growing demand. More prominent space off the central lobby was given to the Center’s award-winning interfaith library, which began in 1980 and is staffed by volunteers from the congregations.

A Board of Directors consisting of proportional representation from each of the two congregations provides general oversight and management of the heavily used facility. The Board employs a building manager who coordinates the activities, oversees the building rentals, and the large custodial staff. The staff members not only maintain the building, but also change room configurations from worship to banquet and back again on a tight schedule.

The Center’s 1970 Dedication Booklet opened with the scriptural phrase, “How pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” The day to day experience of putting congregations with often conflicting needs into one building has sometimes made this phrase woefully hard to achieve; at other times sharing of beliefs and participating in joint activities have made dwelling together wonderfully easy. After 45 years it is still this goal that guides the congregations in their day-to-day interactions with each other in the building.

Thanks to Carolyn Arena, a long time congregant, for her many contributions to this post.