Brookland is a Washington D.C. neighborhood christened “Little Rome.” It earned this moniker decades ago because the Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception are located here.
But the neighborhood is actually named after Colonel Jehiel Brooks who owned a farm here in the 19th century. After his death in 1886, developers began building homes. There are excellent examples of Queen Anne architecture that date back to the 1890s.
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Suburb in the City
With its wide streets, open spaces, century-old residences, and kids riding bikes, Brookland could be mistaken for a town in the suburbs. But the neighborhood is located less than four miles from the U.S. Capitol (via North Capitol St NW).
I wanted to learn more about this neighborhood’s historic homes and famous residents, just as I have written about Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and 16th Street NW in DC. So I booked a walking tour with Washington Walks. My guide was Martin, a retired economist who is a member of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington DC, and a certified National Cathedral guide.
We meet at 901 Newton Street NE. Today it is the home of the Public Access Corporation for the District of Columbia (aka DCTV). But Colonel Brooks originally built the mansion for his family. The elegant white home features a large lawn. The Brookland Metro parking lot is across the street so it is a good location to begin a tour.
Martin starts our tour by quizzing us about the neighborhood’s name. “Does anybody know that this neighborhood is named for Colonel Jehiel Brooks? He was born in the late 18th century. Brooks enlisted in the war to fight the British in the War of 1812. He became a 1st lieutenant, even though he was only 15 or 16 years old. Eventually, he moved to Washington DC. He knew a lot of important people in the capital, including Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. And he was friends with President John Tyler.”
According to Martin, he wedded “very well.” Colonel Brooks married Ann Margaret Queen in 1828. Her ancestors were a founding family when the colony of Maryland was established in 1632. “She was a descendent of the original Maryland families. Her properties went up to Bladensburg. The family gave them 200 acres. They had enslaved people working on their plantation,” said Martin.
In 1840, the Brooks built a three-story Greek-revival home in the northeast section of Washington DC. They named their plantation “Bellair.” The house features Greek columns at the entry. There are no shutters on the windows. There is a circular driveway.
The home occupies an entire square in Brookland. It features a tree-filled front lawn with lots of room for children to play. Martin said that President Tyler would visit the Brooks family and play with their children. One day, the daughters were pushing the President around in a wheelbarrow.
“Unfortunately, at the same time, a congressman was coming to visit Colonel Brooks. Their father came running out and saying ‘there’s a bunch of people at the front door coming to see you,'” said Martin. The president quickly jumped out so he would look dignified.
Plum, cherry, apricot, nectarine, and fig-bearing trees grew on the west side of the house. The Brooks also had peach and apple orchards on the grounds. Vegetables and flowers grew in a long walled garden.
Colonel Brooks lived in this home until 1886 when he died. A developer purchased the farm from Brooks’ widow. “This is when Brookland developed (as a neighborhood),” said Martin. “But instead of calling it Brooksland, they named it Brookland.”
The next owner of the Brooks home (Marist Society) built a large eastern addition to this house in 1894. The Marist College used the building until it was sold to Benedictine Sisters of New Jersey.
The stately building has changed ownership many times over the course of its history, and its tenants have included the Benedictine Sisters of Elizabeth, New Jersey; Catholic University; St. Anthony’s High School; the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA); and the Public Access Corporation for the District of Columbia (DCTV).
Queen Anne Homes
We headed up the avenue to look at some of the early houses in the area. Brookland started to be developed between 1887 and 1900. The neighborhood sprung up as developers laid out streets and sold lots. Houses had deep lots.
“You’ll see a lot of Queen Anne architecture and wooden structures,” said Martin.
Queen Anne was a popular style between 1880 and 1910. Identifying “style” features include a steeply pitched roof, textured shingles, asymmetrical porch (partial or full-width), and cutaway bay windows.
“Queen Anne homes are most conveniently subdivided into two sets of overlapping subtypes. The first is based on characteristic variations in shape; the second on distinctive patterns of decorative detailing.”A Field Guide to American Houses
The hilly terrain is quite noticeable once you begin walking around Brookland. As we stood examining the old homes built at the turn of the 20th century, our group looked down toward Michigan Avenue.
The dome of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was visible, even at a great distance. The church is located at 400 Michigan Avenue NE adjacent to the Catholic University of America. The National Shrine is described as “America’s Catholic Church: A Century in the Making” on its website. It was established by papal charter.
“Although its foundation stone was laid in 1920, this great shrine seems to have been conceived of as early as 1846”www.NationalShrine.org
The artistic embellishment of the Basilica, both inside and out, is in keeping with the Romanesque-Byzantine style of its architecture, according to the National Shrine website.
Art Deco Movie Theater
Now our next stop is the former home of the Newton Movie Theater. It was located at 3601 12th St NE. Today it is a CVS Store. The venue is listed on the DC Register of Historic Sites.
Architect John J. Zink designed the Art Deco-style theater. It opened in 1937. The theater had 1,007 seats.
The large brick structure consisted of a two-story auditorium and attached one-story lobby entry. The theater featured glazed yellow brick with intersecting bands of dark brown brick. There was an ornamental ziggurat (a traditional Art Deco detail). According to the venue’s registration form to become a National Historical Landmark, the entrance foyer led directly into “a richly furnished lobby of modified modernistic design, softly illuminated with indirect lighting and made inviting by deep cushioned divans and potted palms.”
Zink built more than 200 movie theater projects in this region. Few remain today. “Zink built the Uptown in Cleveland Park. The Atlas Theater on H Street was also his design,” said Martin.
The neighborhood theater, like Newton Movie Theater, became popular in the 1930s. “Americans began to frequent smaller, neighbor-based theaters rather than large downtown venues,” according to DC Historic Sites (DHS).
“This small Brookland theater is typical of a time before the prevalence of TV, when movie-going became a local pasttime.”DC Historic Sites
The Newton Theater closed in the 1960s. “Its vacancy became not only a symbol but a cause of the neighborhood’s flagging health,” reported DHS.
Brookland’s original commercial section was down by the railroad tracks. Today, the Main Street of Brookland is 12th St. NE. Martin said they began building stores here between the 1920-1940s. Today, many local businesses operate side-by-side, such as a day care center, pizza parlor, and insurance office.
There is a billboard pinned with neighborhood notes, such as lawn mowing services. You see Play Here signs for the DC Lottery at the Newton Food Mart. “African Hair Braiding” is advertised on a red brick wall.
The St. John Grand Lodge is down the street. The cornerstone for this red brick Masonic Temple was laid in 1911. The three-story structure is situated on a corner lot in Brookland. It featured a first floor (commercial), second floor (entertainment hall), and third floor (private). Until 1920, it housed the Brookland Post Office.
The architectural style is Second Renaissance. Architectural details include rounded blind arches and keystones. The first floor had display windows.
During our walk in the commercial area, a local resident stops us to talk about his home. He is excited to see our walking tour of Brookland. Through his research, he discovered that Jessie Moon Holton bought five lots to build houses and develop properties to sell in Brookland. The proceeds helped her to finance the Holton-Arms School, a prestigious private girls’ school that she founded in 1901.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
After we finish talking with this Brookland resident, we stop in front of the childhood home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at 1221 Newton St. NE. Her wooden frame home features a wraparound porch, decorative shingles, rounded turret, and bay window.
Her parents were Arthur Frank Kinnan and Ida May Traphagen Kinnan. Her mother gave birth to Marjorie in this house on August 8, 1896.
Rawlings wrote The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It is the story of a little boy in Florida who convinces his parents to let him adopt a young deer.
“He lay down beside the fawn. He put one arm across its neck. It did not seem to him that he could ever be lonely again.”Majorie Kinnan Rawlings
Rawlings’ editor was Maxwell Perkins. He also edited works by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
There is a wonderful blog entitled Bygone Brookland, which is a treasure trove of historical information. (The publisher is Robert Malesky, a former journalist/producer for NPR.) I learned that Marjorie began writing when she was little. She even contributed her stories to the children’s sections of newspapers.
“Marjorie continued her schooling and began to develop a new interest – writing. She entered a number of essay contests, won a few, and had some printed in the Washington Post.”Robert Malesky
I can almost picture a young Marjorie sitting on her porch. She is scribbling in her notebook a short story about the animals at her father’s farm in Garrett Park, Maryland.
St. Anthony Catholic Church
We also stop to talk about St. Anthony Catholic Church, which was founded in 1892. The church is named after St. Anthony of Padua.
When a deacon saw us outside the church, he unlocked the doors so we could go inside the church to examine the stained glass windows. He also gave us a history lesson.
When our group was leaving, I noticed a picture of Antoinette Margot hanging in the vestibule. Martin told us that Margot donated money to help build the church. “She was a benefactress of the church,” said Martin.
She was born in France. Although her parents were Huguenots, she had a religious conversion and became a devout Catholic. She immigrated to the United States and settled in Brookland.
St. Anthony describes itself as the “Parish of Little Rome in Washington DC.” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s parents are parishioners. Her daughter’s christening was held at St. Anthony Church.
Sterling A. Brown Residence
Howard University also had a big influence on the development of Brookland. Many professors settled in this neighborhood, along with the LeDroit and Shaw neighborhoods.
Writer Sterling A. Brown lived on Kearney Street. A DC native, he attended Dunbar High School, followed by Williams College and Harvard University.
“He was a central figure in the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Brown resisted the term ‘Harlem Renaissance,” because he said very little took place in Harlem. A lot of the Renaissance took place in DC and Howard University,” said Martin.
Brown wrote Southern Road (1932), The Negro in American Fiction (1937), and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937). He edited Negro Caravan, a groundbreaking 1941 anthology. He was named the first Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia in 1984.
Brown taught in the English Department at Howard University for 40 years.
“His students, including Stokely Carmichael, fondly remembered late-night discussions with Brown here on Kearney Street, the home-turned-salon he shared with wife Daisy Turnbull.Cultural Tourism DC
Lucy Diggs Slowe Residence
Next, our group walked down Kearney Street to see the residence of Lucy Diggs Slowe. This accomplished woman served as Dean of Women for Howard University. Notably, she was the first Black woman to serve in such a position at any American college.
“Impelled by her vision of the modern Black woman, Slowe nurtured a post-World War I generation at Howard University to be empowered, self-aware and globally conscious.”New York Times
Her list of “firsts” is extensive. She won a tennis singles title while a student at Howard University. Slowe is one of the original founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which is one of the first African American women sororities. She served as the principal for the first junior high school for black children in DC.
On December 18th, the DC Preservation League (DCPL) in partnership with Ben and Dawn O’Connell submitted a nomination to designate the Slowe-Burrill House, 1256 Kearny Street, NE, as a DC Landmark.
African American Heritage Trail
Brown’s residence is one of five stops on the African American Heritage Trail. Other points of interest are the Lois Mailou Jones Residence, the Ralph J. Bunche Residence, the Rayford Logan Residence, and the Robert Clifton Weaver Residence.
Although the home of Economist Robert Clifton Weaver was replaced at 3519 14th Street NE, there is a historical marker. A native of Washington DC, he graduated from Dunbar High School. He earned three degrees in economics from Harvard University. Weaver was the first African American member of President Lyndon John’s presidential cabinet.
According to Cultural Tourism DC, “Brookland became a popular neighborhood for middle-class blacks after World War II, when racially restrictive housing covenants were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. All of the individuals highlighted in this [Brookland] tour have connections to Howard University.”
My illusion of traveling to the country is complete when we reach the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. located at 1400 Quincy Street. It indeed offers an oasis for local residents as well as travelers to Washington DC. The gardens are bustling on this Saturday morning as individuals carried around pots of flowers.
Every April, the monastery’s Garden Guild hosts the annual Plant & Herb Sale. Patrons can purchase monastery-grown vegetables, herbs, flowers, and honey.
Franciscan friars designed the gardens over a century ago. The vegetable harvest program provides fresh produce to local food non-profits and parish food pantries.
The Garden Guild also conducts free tours of the gardens on Saturdays from April 2nd through September 24th at 11 am and 12 noon.
“You will learn about the history, architecture, plants and friars as you explore the formal upper garden, more natural lower garden and the vegetable garden and bee apiaries behind the monastery.”MyFranciscan.org
My Golden Retriever (Parker) and I will also be coming back in October when the friars bless pets on the Feast Day of St. Francis. These gardens are a sanctuary for humans and doggos!
The Monastery held its last blessing of the pets on October 5, 2019 (pre-pandemic). Franciscan Father Jim Gardiner led the blessing. Neighbors brought their pets (mostly dogs and cats) to be blessed at the Monastery’s gardens. Fr. Jim told his audience (human and furry feet creatures) that many people misinterpret the reading from Genesis.
“We think that God created the animals, and then thought, ‘not only was it good, but I’ve got a better idea, I think I‘ll create humans.’ No, he said, ‘We can learn a lesson from those animals, how giving they are, how affectionate they are. And this is something we need….’”Father Jim Gardiner
AMEN FATHER! WOOF!
Columnist John Kelly writes a column answering questions about the nation’s capital for The Washington Post. Kelly’s column provides “a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side.” He seems to be able to answer any question about DC (or at least research to find an answer).
Notably, his grandmother (Mary Stock Kelly) was the great-granddaughter of Colonel Brooks, so Brookland is a special place for his family. In his September 28, 2011 column, Kelly wrote a book review about Images of America: Brookland. Written by two lifelong Brookland residents John F. Feeley Jr. and Rosie Dempsey, this book was published Arcadia Publishing.
“Brookland was never Washington’s most fashionable address, but it attracted a steady stream of middle-class families eager for its shady streets and single-family houses,” wrote Kelly.
It still does today. Just check Zillow.com to see how quickly Queen Anne, Craftsman bungalows, and Mid Century Modern homes get snapped up in Brookland.