Willard G. Rouse, III

The Reverend Paul M. Washington
Elaine Brown

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Rouse showed little promise as a youth. He graduated from a local “prep” school in the lower quarter of his class, and dropped out of the University of Virginia, where he partied often and studied little. Rouse enlisted in the United States Army, where he was “busted” a few times for misbehavior during his two-year assignment in West Germany. Rouse then had a painful awakening -- he was a “gross underachiever”-- and decided to pursue a career in real-estate development. He re-enrolled at the University of Virginia where he graduated with a major in English, but took courses -- city planning, accounting, business law -- appropriate to his career goal.

H is father Willard Rouse and uncle James Rouse were influential real estate developers, owners of the Rouse Company. Rouse worked on occasion for the family business, but was determined to strike out on his own. His big break came when he was hired by a Los Angeles firm to develop several hundred acres of farmland in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia. He built an industrial park. The opportunity delivered Rouse to the Philadelphia area and earned him $80,000. With that money, he launched his own company in 1972. The firm, Rouse & Associates, mainly built industrial buildings in the Philadelphia area.

In the early 1980’s, Rouse promoted a development project, One Liberty Place, at the corner of 17th and Market Streets in Center City Philadelphia for which he became renowned. Prior to constructing One Liberty Place, there was a seemingly inviolable gentlemen’s agreement stipulating buildings within Philadelphia could not exceed the statue of William Penn that adorns the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall – in other words, 548 feet. One Liberty Place was designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn as a post-modern “grayish-blue glass-and-granite” skyscraper rising 947 feet.

His proposal encountered resistance from many of the city’s residents. A poll taken by Philadelphia Daily News of its readership showed that a bare majority – 53.3% - supported construction of One Liberty Place. When he proposed the project, Rouse did not purposely plan to abrogate the traditional building height restriction. Rather, he said, he wanted to avoid erecting “an ugly complex of buildings” to accommodate the city’s height limit. Among his opponents was Edmund Bacon, former planning director of Philadelphia, who severed his friendship with Rouse. City Council approved the project by a vote of fourteen to two.

Rouse won the Philadelphia Award in 1986 for having dared, and succeeded, at building the city’s first skyscraper, ending Philadelphia’s refusal to modernize its appearance and enhance its skyline. A frank-speaking, informal man, Rouse was a master organizer who thrived when working on complex, difficult projects that other developers avoided. In 1987 Rouse became chairman of the group, We the People 200, Inc., charged with organizing the city’s celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The group had been faltering, but Rouse rescued the city’s celebration, which was hugely successful. In 1994 Rouse reorganized his business as Liberty Property Trust, which grew to be worth $4.6 billion with business in 10 states and the United Kingdom. Yet Rouse will be remembered mostly for his work in Philadelphia. He spearheaded the development of the massive Convention Center. He considered his greatest achievement to be the building of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, arguably Philadelphia’s most distinctive modern building.

“’Bill was our champion. More so than anyone else, he could overcome Philadelphia’s all-too-frequent lack of self-confidence,’ said Peter Hearn, former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. As a developer and a civic leader, Rouse revised the skyline and direction of Philadelphia – upwardly.

James J. Copeland

Sources: Peter Dobrin, “He set sights high,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 2003; William K. Stevens, “Downtown Developer: Willard G. Rouse 3d,” The New York Times, May 4, 1986; “Metropolitan Area News in Brief,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 24, 1987; William K. Stevens, “Confident Hero for a City of Doubters,” New York Times, March 7, 1988; John F. Morrison & Paul Davies, “Rouse developed monumental legacy,” Philadelphia Daily News, May 29, 2003; Inga Saffron, “The limits of success,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 2003; Wolfgang Saxon, “Willard G. Rouse, 60, Dies,” New York Times, May 29, 2003; Henry J. Holcomb, “A legacy in more than bricks,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 29, 2003.