The People Tree in Columbia. (Angie Latham Kozlowski photo)

Paris-born artist and sculptor Pierre du Fayet came to Columbia to work for James Rouse’s new city. He was hired in 1966 to create signs, symbols, fountains, and other sculpted forms. His most revered and significant sculpture for the city became a community focal point that captures the essence of Rouse’s dream for Columbia. Installed on June 21, 1967, it towered over the small trees that adorned the new man-made lake. 

Du Fayet called the sculpture “The Tree of Life,” but it became known as the People Tree almost immediately. He used Rouse’s goal of creating the best possible environment for the growth of people as his inspiration.

It is located between the wide, grassy, banked steps and the narrow staircase leading to the promenade on the bank of Lake Kittamaqundi in downtown Columbia. 

The sculpture was not only a point of civic pride but was considered the manifestation, “a taproot,” used by designers and developers to guide every aspect of their roles in the building of Columbia, according to James Healy, a lawyer with Howard Research and Development in the 1960s and 70s. 

In a presentation before the Columbia Association Board in April of 2023, Healy observed, “the guiding principle of everyone working for James Rouse on the new city “…was to do everything that we could as a development (group) to enhance the nourishment and development of growth of everybody, everybody…” He recalled that, the physical manifestation of this taproot was the People Tree. “It was a massively exciting time,” he noted.

Jim and Ronnie Ferry also recall the excitement of early Columbia. Jim’s military service at Ft. Meade as part of the Army Field Band brought him to Columbia in 1970. He took what became an iconic photograph of the People Tree with his very first roll of black and white film on the camera given to him by Ronnie. 

In following a one-page guide on basic photography techniques and how to develop black and white film that he had picked up at a hobby shop on base, Jim finished that first roll of film with photos of things he liked. 

Jim Ferry made this image of the People Tree. Jim sold the image from his photography studio, an original business in the Oakland Mills Village Center. (James Ferry)

Among those last few photos was one of the People Tree. Jim recounted that “after some treatments and legal approval from probably HRD,” he was able to copyright his work. The couple sold the popular photograph to visitors and residents alike from his photography studio, once an original business in the Oakland Mills Village Center.  

As Columbia grew, being at the lakefront for community events, including the annual birthday celebration, city fairs, arts festivals, Fourth of July fireworks, and nightly entertainment during the summers was commonplace.

The People Tree became not just the heart of the city, but the backdrop for ceremonies, cake cuttings and other meaningful moments throughout Columbia’s history. Early residents remember showing it off for out-of-town guests and family and using it as the meet up location. 

To the budding community, the People Tree was a symbol of the promise, hope, and intention of those who moved to Columbia to live in Rouse’s city of socio-economic, multifaith, multicultural and racial integration. 

It continues to be the cornerstone of the city.