Official confirmation of the Rouse Co.'s sale was hours away, but the writing was on the wall.

Literally.

Inside Rouse's sprawling white stucco Columbia headquarters, home to about 200 workers, the Rouse sign in the foyer came down yesterday afternoon and up went the General Growth Properties name.

Employees lingered. Some snapped photos. Many wore Rouse T-shirts and jackets. The mood, a few workers said, was as gray as the rainy day outside.

More than 200 miles away, in a New York law firm, executives of both companies sealed the $7.2 billion cash deal without comment, except for a brief statement from General Growth at 5 p.m.

Anthony W. Deering, Rouse's chief executive and chairman yesterday, sent an e-mail to his employees in the evening, a spokesman said. Yesterday was Deering's last day at the company.

By day's end, Columbia was stripped of the company that created it 37 years ago, when James W. Rouse cobbled together swaths of farmland to launch a grand experiment in planned community living. Rouse's vision inspired many of the innovative residential and retail developments that ring American cities today.

"It's just the reality of what we have to deal with," said Richard W. Story, chief executive of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "It's the end of an era."

Attention turned again yesterday to what Chicago-based General Growth will do with its new employees and assets. Company officials haven't announced plans for layoffs, except to say that they will try to eliminate redundancies.

Chief executive John Bucksbaum has met with Howard County political leaders. "So far, they're saying all the right things," said Howard County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County), who attended a recent lunch with Bucksbaum and others. "At the time they were really trying to figure things out and didn't have any answers yet. . . . But my comfort level is good based on our conversations so far. They understand how special Columbia is."

Many Rouse employees were called by headhunters shortly after the deal was announced in August.

Some left, anxious about potential layoffs and competing in the job market with former colleagues. Some stayed when Rouse offered cash bonuses to those employees it hopes to retain -- at least temporarily.

For General Growth, the nation's second-largest mall owner, Rouse's appeal was its portfolio of upscale, well-known shopping malls. General Growth now owns 215 regional malls. It expands from 41 states to 44.

But General Growth also acquired non-retail property, in businesses outside of its specialty. It got undeveloped land earmarked for sale in Columbia and planned communities in Las Vegas and Houston, as well as a portfolio of office buildings in the Baltimore-Washington corridor and Las Vegas. Many analysts expect the company to sell the office properties, though General Growth officials recently said they're in no rush to do so.

If they do, Randall M. Griffin, president and chief operating officer of Corporate Office Properties Trust, said his real estate investment trust is interested.

Griffin said he's recruited five employees from Rouse in the past few months and hopes to attract more because of the company's reputation for top-notch workers. Griffin also said that many of Rouse's top executives cut ties with the company shortly after Rouse shareholders approved the merger earlier this week.

Still in limbo is undeveloped land owned by Rouse near Merriweather Post Pavilion and at Emerson, one of two major new housing and commercial developments in Howard County.

Cole Schnorf, a principal of Manekin LLC, said his real estate company has worked with Rouse for decades and is still interested in developing some of the commercial properties that Rouse once owned. But now he is worried. "Our biggest concern is what is going to happen to that land," he said. "Will the relationship that we have nurtured for 30 years mean anything to whatever entity ends up owning that land?"

As for the 51 acres surrounding Merriweather, General Growth inherits an issue that's enraged some local residents. Rouse wants to enclose the pavilion, convert it into a smaller venue, and bring large retailers such as Barnes & Noble to the site. In doing so, it would eliminate the pavilion's parking lot.

Some civic leaders decided not to reach out to the new company in town until the sale was final. "It would make no sense to approach them if the merger did not go through," said Bart Harvey, chairman and chief executive of the Enterprise Foundation, which was launched in 1982 by James Rouse in Columbia to provide housing for low-income people nationwide.

Rouse Co. has donated more than $1 million to the Enterprise Foundation since its creation, including in-kind support to help James Rouse set up the foundation, Harvey said.

As a condition of the merger, General Growth agreed to contribute a one-time $20 million payment to the Rouse Co. Foundation. Harvey plans to test General Growth's generosity in the months ahead.

"We're going to make the best pitch we possibly can," he said.