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At Home in Brookland

Finding God in Wood

Teaching the Bible to Senators

WW II’s ‘Greatest Soldier’

At Home in Brookland
The third article in the continuing series, “Pride of Place”

BrooklandA university is not an island; it is bound subtly and indelibly to the place that surrounds it. For Catholic University, that place is Brookland, a neighborhood of rolling hills, tree-lined streets and eclectic architecture tucked into the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. It’s a neighborhood that was once so filled with priests and nuns that you couldn’t walk down 12th Street without nodding your head and saying, “Good morning, Sister” or “Good morning, Father”; a neighborhood with a rich artistic legacy, home to professors and writers and some of D.C.’s most illustrious African-American citizens. Even now, with the city all grown up around it and a real estate boom driving prices of small row houses beyond half a million dollars, Brookland remains in many ways what it has always been — a village in the city, a place out of time and, for its loyal residents, home.

“It’s a lovely neighborhood; it’s a true neighborhood,” says Dean Veryl Miles of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, a 15-year Brookland resident who considers herself a relative newcomer. “Most of our neighbors have been here longer than we have, 30 to 40 years.”

Thomas P. Rooney, M.F.A. 1955, a former associate professor of art at CUA, has lived in Brookland for more than 50 years. He went to school, worked, married, raised a family there, and has now retired to his rambling Queen Anne Victorian with its carriage-house sculpture studio in the back. “When I was a student I lived in a house we used to call ‘The Chateau’ on the corner of Otis and 12th Street. It was an old building with steam heat; we had to shovel coal for the furnace,” Rooney says. “After Angela Bayer (a CUA drama student) and I were married in 1956, we continued to live there. We could look out the kitchen window and see the basilica going up. We could see right through the shell of the transept and see the sun setting.”

For some, Brookland is merely the neighborhood in which Catholic University happens to be — and nothing more. But for many faculty, students and alumni, the neighborhood has left its mark. Listen to them, learn about Brookland, and it’s easy to understand their pride in a place that is both anchored by — and an anchor to — the university it surrounds.

From the beginning, Brookland was seen as a place set apart. For proof, look no further than its topography. The area is 200 feet above sea level, one of the highest points in D.C., and years ago its air was considered cleaner and healthier than that of the muggy downtown four miles to its south. When Col. Jehiel Brooks built his country house on this land in 1840, he named the home Bellair (“beautiful air”). And when President Lincoln and his wife needed to escape the heat and dust of a Washington summer, they retreated to the Soldier’s Home on the western edge of Brookland.

Brookland began as several large tracts of land granted by British King Charles I to George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. One early resident was Samuel Harrison Smith, a newspaper publisher who entertained Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in a red brick house whose walls later formed part of CUA’s St. Thomas Hall. The Smiths fled their home in 1814, when British troops clashed with the American Army not too far away and then marched to Washington and set fire to the White House. Brookland also had two Civil War strongholds: Fort Slemmer sat on a knoll north of CUA’s Marist Hall and Fort Bunker Hill a few miles east. These were small forts but they were on high ground, so sentries could spot Confederate troops at a distance.

The modern history of Brookland began when Col. Brooks, a veteran of the War of 1812 and namesake of the pub beloved by students and alums (see accompanying story), built the Greek Revival mansion that still stands today at 901 Newton St. A lawyer, Indian agent and gentleman farmer, Brooks spent a good portion of his later years embroiled in legal disputes. When he died in 1886, his heirs were left with little choice but to sell the estate.

And so the land began its transformation from field, orchard and stream to house, building and street. From 1887 to 1910, 10 subdivisions were carved from Brooks’ 134 acres. The houses had deep lots and spacious porches and were far enough away from central D.C. that developers could lure buyers with the promise of semi-rural living and small-town charm. By 1891, the population was 700, but it more than doubled during the next 10 years as the neighborhood gained such amenities as plank sidewalks and a streetcar line.

Brookland evolved section by section, over decades, and this worked to its advantage. “One of the reasons Brookland is unique is that it developed slowly from the 1880s to the present, so there is architecture from most every decade of the 20th century, from the high Victorians of the 1880s and ’90s to Neo-Colonial, bungalow, Craftsman and modern International-style homes,” says Jeff Wilson of the Brookland Garden Club. The mix works, he says, because the houses fit the land they rest upon. They have proportion and scale.

What mattered to homebuyers of the early years was that houses went for as little as $300 and were affordable for teachers, tradesmen and government workers. “For a time we thought we were going to have a nabob neighborhood. We had about eight families of social prominence. But they discovered their mistake about 1910 and moved elsewhere,” John L. Sherwood, an early resident and developer of Brookland, once related.

The neighborhood may not have assumed the social prominence of Cleveland Park, Bethesda or Chevy Chase, but it did attract the exciting mix of professionals and creative souls that defines it still. In 1890, Robert Ridgeway, Smithsonian ornithologist and author of the classic The Birds of North and Middle America, perched his capacious, turreted Queen Anne home, “Rose Terrace” (Brookland is the sort of place where houses have names), on a 13th Street hillside. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, spent her girlhood in a large Victorian on Newton Street around the turn of the century. Suffragette and botanist Carrie Harrison, who coined the 4-H motto, “To Make the Best Better,” lived in a house called the “Spanish Villa,” built in 1909. A few decades later, playwright and critic Walter Kerr and his wife, writer Jean Kerr (author of the best-selling Please Don’t Eat the Daisies), lived on Varnum Street while he was teaching drama at CUA and she was a student there.

Though the history of town and gown in this country is a checkered one, it is impossible to imagine Cambridge without Harvard or New Haven without Yale. Likewise, the neighborhood of Brookland owes much of its character to Catholic University, founded in 1887 on 65 acres of land purchased for $27,000. The university set an academic tone for the area and inspired other religious organizations and institutions to settle nearby.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur founded Trinity College in 1897, and the Dominicans built their House of Studies in 1901. The Marist Brothers bought the former Brooks mansion in 1901 and sold it to the Benedictine Sisters in 1906. The sisters would teach generations of Brookland children there and, later, at St. Anthony’s Catholic School on 12th Street. A different sort of education was provided by the Sulpicians, a society devoted to priestly formation, which built Theological College in 1917 and further cemented the area’s reputation as a premier site for Catholic higher education. In 1899 the Franciscan friars opened their monastery on a hill. Built in the style of Hagia Sofia, the great Byzantine church in Istanbul, the monastery featured replicas of Holy Land shrines and marked Brookland as a place of pilgrimage and contemplation.
Although Brookland still has a strong clerical presence, in its religious heyday between the world wars the neighborhood housed more than 50 orders — Carmelites and Ursulines, Claretians and Josephites — and earned the nickname “Little Rome.”

“I can remember when the name ‘Little Rome’ still had meaning. There were always priests in collars and nuns in habits walking down the street,” recalls Monsignor Robert Mohan, a CUA professor emeritus of philosophy who has lived in Brookland 50 years. “The old Newton Theater provided free Saturday matinees for the religious. One time when I was dean of summer sessions, I got a call from the actor Hume Cronyn, who said he had heard about the free movies and offered free tickets to his performance at the National Theatre.”

Brookland’s ecclesiastical reputation attracted Catholic residents, especially those of Italian or Irish ancestry: Salvatore Chisari opened a shoe repair shop and Gaetano Valenti a barbershop; James J. Hannon and Michael J. McGettigan started a hardware store. (These stores were located on 12th Street, Brookland’s “Main Street,” which first blossomed from the late teens to the early 1930s.) The allure of “Little Rome” continued to beckon Catholic homeowners well into the 1950s and ’60s, as large families moved into the area’s roomy houses with their large backyards.

“My parents moved to Brookland in 1948, and the driving force behind their decision to move there was the overall Catholic culture of Brookland at that time. Our house was literally next door to the Franciscan Monastery,” says Paul Brooks, B.A. 1976, director of government and community relations at CUA (and no relation to Col. Brooks).

One of the big events for Paul Brooks and others growing up in the neighborhood in the late ’50s was watching the 329-foot Knight’s Tower of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, completed in 1959, rise into the sky. The main building of the shrine, the nation’s largest Catholic church, was constructed slowly and in stages from 1920 to 1950, but interior work on the ceiling mosaics and other details were still a work in progress throughout the 1950s. (In 1990, the shrine received the designation of “basilica” to honor its importance to the dissemination of faith in this country.)

“I grew up in [Brookland’s] St. Anthony’s parish and I watched the shrine come alive,” says Lavinia Wohlfarth, who now directs the Brookland Community Development Corporation, which works to revive communities. “I remember when the basilica was huge and wonderful and empty, and I watched as each chapel filled with art, mosaics and lighting. Going there now is like coming home.”

Even as the rest of D.C. grew up around Brookland, buildings like the basilica, the Franciscan Monastery and CUA’s Cardinal and Gibbons halls dominated the horizon and set the area apart as a place of spires and church bells, where heaven seemed, if not exactly close, then at least not so far away as in other urban locales.

“We’ve always heard bells in the neighborhood. St. Anselm’s Abbey [founded by the Benedictine Friars in 1924] plays bells. There are bells at the shrine and at the Franciscan Monastery,” Wohlfarth says. “The ringing of the bells is a type of calling, a type of mission.” It certainly was to Anna M. du Brul, a Trinity College student who in 1921 penned a poem, “The Bells of Brookland”:
O monks, who mark the day
By Avés as you sing,
Reminders of His service may
The Bells of Brookland ring.

When the bells ring in their steeples, the sound of their chimes drifts down over broad lawns and green spaces, because the area’s many churches and schools give Brookland an openness rare in the city. “One of the things that hasn’t changed in my lifetime is that Brookland still has these vestiges of natural life,” says John J. Feeley Jr., B.A., 1976, M.A. 1978, a native Brooklander. “There’s a bird flyway that goes through here. I can see Canadian geese and a wide variety of other birds. And before the [CUA] athletic center was built, there were great horned owls in that area.”

Churches, schools, bells, open space — these were some of the reasons families stayed put in Brookland, sometimes for generations. John Feeley’s parents met at CUA in the 1950s, first lived in a duplex, then moved to a house on Sigsbee Place, where John, 51, still lives today. His neighbors have been just as rooted. “The Allens, across the alley, have been here since I was 12, and the Reeses since I was 14,” Feeley says. “Even in my adult life the people who’ve moved onto the block have been here almost 20 years.”

The very fact that people stayed in Brookland attracted others to the place. Freddie Johnson, M.S. 1963, moved to the neighborhood 33 years ago and he and his wife, Margaret, raised four children there. Now Johnson’s grandkids frolic in the huge backyard sandbox that his sons and daughter used to play in. What struck him about Brookland in the beginning is what still impresses him today, that “it really was a community. We had parties for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. We worked with St. Anthony’s school to get the things it needed. We were one big family.”

Many old-time Brooklanders were CUA alums who grew to love the area when they were students and stayed on after graduation. “Before there was Colonel Brooks’ Tavern we used to go to Fred’s on 12th Street,” remembers CUA General Counsel Craig Parker, J.D. 1974, who lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. “And then there was Viareggio’s. That’s where generations of Italians bought their tomato sauce, pasta and Italian cold-cut sandwiches on hard rolls. I broke a tooth on one of those rolls.”

When Bob Artisst, outgoing president of the Brookland Civic Association, decided to build a house in Brookland in the early 1960s, he bought a lot from an African-American family that had lived on Quincy Street for decades. “The man was a custodian at Trinity College and the college had helped him buy his first house. Later he could afford to buy a second and a third lot. That was in the late 1920s, when the street was still a dirt road,” Artisst says.

Brookland has always attracted African-American residents, especially physicians, professors, politicians, writers and performers. Pearl Bailey lived at 1428 Irving St briefly in the 1930s before she made a name for herself on Broadway. Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., the first African-American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction times, grew up in Brookland, as did Robert Clifton Weaver, the first U.S. secretary of housing and urban development and the first African-American to hold a presidential cabinet post.

One of the neighborhood’s most famous residents was Ralph Bunche, diplomat, undersecretary general of the United Nations and the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded in 1950 for negotiating a peace treaty between Arab nations and the fledgling state of Israel). In 1941 Bunche commissioned Howard University architect Hilyard Robinson to build a house for him at 1510 Jackson St. It featured the dominant horizontal line and lack of ornamentation typical of the International style and was one of several Robinson houses in the neighborhood. Another, right across the street, was built for Rayford Logan, civil rights activist and historian of African-American life.

But the prominence of Brookland’s black citizens didn’t mean the neighborhood’s schools, restaurants and other public places were any more integrated than the rest of the South’s. “We started building our house in 1963, and at that time the People’s Drug Store used to have a soda fountain,” Bob Artisst recalls. “Blacks worked behind the counter but we couldn’t sit at the counter and eat.” In fact, the Brookland Civic Association that Artisst heads was formed in the 1960s by African-American residents who were not allowed to join the all-white Brookland Citizen’s Association. Of the two organizations, it was the integrated one that survived.

Racial tensions also surfaced during and after the riots that followed the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and there was property damage on 12th Street. Paul Brooks was a student at St. Anthony’s Catholic School at that time and remembers the riots as a transformative event in his young life.

“The teachers placed us children in the cafeteria and our parents had to retrieve us and take us home,” he recalls. “There were curfews and the National Guard was stationed on many street corners. It was a difficult and uncertain time.”

But residents took these upsets in stride; they had already been dealing with white flight for many years. Sterling Brown, the District of Columbia’s first poet laureate and a longtime Brooklander, wrote a letter to the old Washington Star newspaper in 1979 mentioning the “For Sale” signs that seemed to sprout overnight on Kearney Street after he and his family moved into the neighborhood in the 1930s. Brown knew that the neighborhood was resilient. “Brookland is doing well, and Brookland will rise again,” he wrote.

One of the ways Brookland “rose again” was by fighting an expressway that would have bisected the neighborhood and changed it forever. When regional planners proposed the North Central Freeway (I-95) to connect the Maryland suburbs to downtown Washington, Brooklanders waged a long, exhausting but ultimately successful campaign against it. The battle lasted more than a decade, from the 1960s into the 1970s, and “morphed into the battle for Metrorail,” according to Rooney, the retired CUA associate professor who is also a longtime community activist. But even after the Brookland-CUA Metro stop opened in 1978, with balloons and much fanfare, the battles didn’t stop. Residents next mobilized to save the Brooks Mansion from being torn down to build a Metro parking garage and are still debating the best way to promote reasonable development for their small-town-in-the-city. Some prefer historic preservation status; others fear that would mean the loss of control over their property.

What everyone agrees on is that Brookland’s small-town charm — its single-family homes, tree-lined streets and the sort of texture a neighborhood earns when it takes its time growing up — must be protected from crime, deterioration and over-development. These are problems that affect any urban neighborhood, and Brookland is not immune to them. To help out, CUA annually spearheads numerous outreach projects in the neighborhood — from the National Catholic School of Social Service’s work with residents of the government-subsidized Brookland Manor to Campus Ministry’s work tutoring students at St. Anthony’s school. “Throughout the history of Brookland, CUA has always been there,” Brooks says. The university and the neighborhood grew up together, and they will face the future together.

In the past few years, Brookland has become a hot real estate market. The neighborhood may be on the cusp of change, but the professors and artists and shopkeepers who have lived in it for decades don’t plan on leaving. They are reverse pioneers, these people who stay put, and their spirit permeates the place. “I have six brothers and sisters and they left the city years ago. But I’m still here,” says Wohlfarth, who lives in the house she grew up in. “This is my community.” Alumni, friends — those who left Brookland years ago but still carry it within them — they know what she means.

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Meet Me at ... Colonel Brooks

There is town, there is gown, and if you’re lucky, there is someplace in between. For Catholic University, that place is Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, a Brookland watering hole and off-campus hangout for more than a quarter century. Its cozy booths and wooden bar have welcomed countless students, alumni and faculty. To enter Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, affectionately known as CBs or Brooks, is to feel instantly at home.

“I think the second person in D.C. whose name I knew was Phil, the bartender at Colonel Brooks,” says Christopher Wheatley, professor of English and vice provost and dean for undergraduate studies. “It’s a very friendly and relaxed place, sort of like Cheers.”

When Rev. Jim Sabak, B.A. 1985, M.A. 2003, entered Catholic University in 1981, Colonel Brooks’ Tavern was only a year old, but it quickly became his portal to the world beyond the university. “Getting to know the neighborhood, seeing what it was all about — for me the place you always connected was Colonel Brooks,” says the priest, who still frequents the pub since he’s working on his Ph.D. in CUA’s School of Theology and Religious Studies.

The tavern is a link not only to the community, but also to its past. In 1978, when owner Jim Stiegman first spotted an abandoned storefront at the corner of 9th and Monroe, right across from the Metrorail station and two blocks from the CUA campus, he immediately sensed the possibilities of the place. And when he learned more about the neighborhood’s history, he decided to name his new restaurant for Col. Jehiel Brooks, the lawyer and landowner whose farmland became the neighborhood of Brookland (see main story).

Several of the colonel’s descendants still lived in the area when the restaurant opened in 1980, and they allowed Stiegman to copy pictures from their family albums — including some taken by the famous Civil War and portrait photographer Mathew Brady. Soon images of the colonel, his family and old Brookland were framed and mounted on the walls of the new establishment.

Stiegman added other unique touches, such as old church pews for banquette seats, befitting a pub in a neighborhood once known as Little Rome. “I looked all over for Catholic church pews but I couldn’t find them,” Stiegman admits. “So we used Protestant church pews instead.”

In no time at all, Colonel Brooks became a crossroads of campus and community, where students, priests, professors and nurses from nearby Providence Hospital all rubbed shoulders. “One night when the bar was full, there was a priest and two nuns talking to a couple of construction workers,” says the tavern’s general manager, Rudy Manili. “Next to them were two businessmen in three-piece suits and a couple of college students. Where else in all of D.C. can you go and have all these different people talking to each other?”

Because the pub serves such an eclectic clientele, its mood and tone changes throughout the day. Lunchtime attracts faculty and staff from CUA, Trinity or employees from D.C.’s Public Access television station located across the street in what was once the Brooks Mansion. Dinnertime brings the locals, and after 9 p.m. students flock to the tables and cram into the booths. Tuesday nights bring out “one of our most interesting sub-communities,” Stiegman says: Dixieland aficionados who have been coming to hear the combo called the Federal Jazz Commission on a weekly basis for 25 years.

With its wide-ranging menu of pasta, burgers, stews, chili and desserts — and its quiet upstairs dining room — Colonel Brooks has always been the kind of place your parents would take you for a real meal. At times, it almost functioned as a branch of the CUA admissions office. “I remember going to lunch at Colonel Brooks with my parents as a high school student looking at Catholic. The ‘collegey’ feel of the tavern was one of the things that led to my decision to come to Catholic,” says Eddie O’Connell, B.A. 1989, who continues to visit the place since he lives in the D.C. area.

Like O’Connell, many grads can’t seem to get Colonel Brooks out of their system, and alumni events are frequently held there or at Island Jim’s, a rum-drink and seafood restaurant Stiegman opened next door. In addition to these two establishments, Brookland has other gathering places such as Kellys’ Ellis Island, a restaurant/pub with a Catholic/immigrant decorative motif, which is popular among faculty, staff and students, and the student hangout recently renamed the Cardinal Club (formerly called Johnny K’s).

Colonel Brooks is closer to campus, however, and there’s something special about it, something that feels like family. “Colonel Brooks was always my home away from home, my safe place,” says John Barry, B.A. 2002, who tended bar there from 1997 to 2003 (one of many CUA students to work at the establishment). “I’d grab a booth and a cup of coffee and do my homework there instead of at the library.”

That sense of safety and hominess was shattered on Easter Sunday morning, 2003, when three Colonel Brooks employees were killed after a failed robbery attempt as they prepared to open for brunch. While three of the perpetrators were arrested and sentenced (and the ringleader, a former employee, committed suicide), the event is still difficult for Stiegman to discuss. “It was devastating for all of us,” he says.

If there was one good thing to come of the tragedy, it was the outpouring of support that followed. Catholic University held a memorial service a few days after the shootings. “The community was incredibly supportive and rallied around us,” Stiegman says.

Celia Messing, B.A. 2003, went to Colonel Brooks not long after the murders. “I thought no one would be there,” she says. “But everyone was there. It was packed with students and neighborhood people.” Everyone had come to pay their respects and express their solidarity. This was not just an affront to Colonel Brooks’ Tavern but to the community. And the community stood by its own.”

“I realized when everyone came together after the murders just how much Colonel Brooks touches people from all walks of life. Some come after a football game, or to work on an assignment or to vent about work. Everyone loves the place for different reasons,” Barry says. But everyone loves it, just the same. – A.C.

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Revised: March 2006

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