PORTRAITS: Brookland’s Property Brothers

Brookland had a number of different development partners in its formative years: Benjamin Leighton and Richard Pairo, William Barnes and John Weaver, Joseph Batchelder and Archibald McLachlen among others, but perhaps the most interesting are James Lewis Sherwood (below left) and his younger brother Jesse Randolph Sherwood, Jr. (below right), who together had an enormous impact on Brookland’s development.

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James and Jesse Sherwood. Photo courtesy Emily Morrison.

The story of the Sherwoods and Brookland actually begins with James and Jesse’s father, Jesse Randolph Sherwood, Sr. (below, courtesy Washington Historical Society)  

He was a market gardener in Alexandria, Virginia, looking to expand and chose the area that would soon become Brookland. “My father bought 25 acres out here in the '80s,” said James Sherwood in a 1950 interview with the Washington Post. “He paid $125 an acre and rented 25 more for truck gardening. He had an option to buy the second tract at the same price. But he did not take up his option because the earth was a heavy clay and it was too difficult to grow vegetables on it.”

Jesse Sherwood had purchased those 25 acres from the McCeney family, who owned a good bit of land in the area. The main McCeney farm, just north of the Sherwood tract, would later be sold to the Franciscans, who built their monastery there. 

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Real estate listing from November, 1881

Sherwood’s tract is clearly marked on the 1887 Hopkins map, which shows the area just before Brookland began to be subdivided. (By the way, the origin of the name “Cuckold’s Delight” is lost to time; it dates from the land patents of the colonial era.)

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Jesse Sherwood’s land corresponds roughly to Newton Street on the north, 18th Street on the east, 15th Street to the west and Lawrence Street to the south. Click to enlarge.

The family moved into a four-room tenant house at present-day 18th and Newton and expanded it; that house is no longer standing. The land was not very good, but they worked the farm for a number of years until Jesse Sr. decided to sell the property to developers McLachlen and Batchelder, who subdivided it in 1889. Sherwood bought another tract a little further east that ran from 20th to 24th Street and Newton to Brentwood Road/Rhode Island Avenue. There he built a new family residence, pictured below, and continued farming.

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The Sherwood home at 2420 Rhode Island Avenue NE. It was torn down in the 1950s.                             Photo: Historical Society of Washington

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Over the years Sherwood and his two oldest sons, James and Jesse Jr., sold their produce at a number of city markets, but their main stalls were at the Riggs Market on P St. between 14th and 15th Streets NW. (right, advertisement from 1892 DC city directory.)

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Riggs Market. Photo: Library of Congress.

In 1883, James, then 21 years old, married Rose Lord, the daughter of wealthy sand and gravel merchant John B. Lord, who owned land in the area. James then bought a 14 1/2 acre plot just north of the McCeney farm where the Franciscan Monastery would soon be built (see 1903 Baist real estate map below).

James built a house there (circled on above map) and moved in with his family in 1886. Below is a photo from a Sherwood family album.

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Photo courtesy Emily Morrison. 

Surprisingly, the James Sherwood farmhouse still stands, making it one of the oldest extant houses in Brookland. It is now attached to the Howard School of Divinity and is not in great shape, though still seems to be in use.

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James grew vegetables on his new farm to sell at their markets. Jesse Sr. continued farming his own land, but decided it was time to turn over the management of the market stalls to his sons. Over time, James and Jesse Jr. expanded, adding their own stalls. Here is a photo of James Sherwood (with mustache), his son James Lewis Sherwood, Jr. (second from right) and staff at his place in the early years of the century.

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Photo courtesy Emily Morrison

James and Jesse Jr., in addition to running the stalls at the Riggs Market, began land speculating, buying and selling lots in the newly subdivided neighborhood. They also helped Brookland to grow in other ways. James and his father-in-law John B. Lord became charter members of the Queenstown Baptist Church, built on an adjoining small plot owned by Lord along Bunker Hill Road. Jesse Sherwood Jr. also joined in, hauling bricks from the Queenstown stock yard near the railroad tracks and helping to build the small structure. By 1892 the congregation had outgrown that building and put up a new church at 12th and Providence (Newton) Streets and renamed it the Brookland Baptist Church. It would be Brookland’s spiritual and cultural center during its early decades.

Meanwhile, their father, Jesse Sr., worked his farm along Rhode Island Avenue, but all was not well with him. Despite a quite comfortable, if hard-working, life and two successful sons, Jesse Sr. was subject to bouts of depression that came to a crisis in 1897. The Washington Times, in the rather florid style of the period, reported what happened:

...His wife was horrified a few minutes before 5 o’clock when he entered her room carrying a package of paris green [a form of arsenic] in one hand and a tumbler half filled with water in the other.

'I am going to end my misery,' he said, 'by taking this poison.'

Mrs. Sherwood, greatly alarmed, sprang forward and knocked the parcel of poison from his hand. This appeared to enrage the husband, and an exciting scene followed. He seized a sharp knife at the same time picking up the package of paris green from the floor.

Then, turning toward Mrs. Sherwood, he defied her to make another attempt to prevent him from swallowing the deadly stuff, threatening to use the knife on her if she did.

The badly frightened wife uttered several piercing screams for assistance, but before other members of the family reached the room, Mr. Sherwood had placed the poison in the glass and quickly swallowed the contents.

In a few moments he fell to the floor writhing in agony. A messenger was dispatched for Dr. Street, but when he reached the room Mr. Sherwood was dead.

Mary Sherwood, now widowed, continued to farm the property for a few years with her youngest son, Robert. Eventually they sold it to developers, who at first called the subdivision “Sherwood," until it was absorbed into Woodridge. Jesse Jr. married the same year of his father’s death and moved with his wife Elizabeth to a home on 6th Street NW.

In the meantime James, now the patriarch of the family, got more involved in civic affairs, becoming president of the Brookland Citizens Association in 1898. He also pooled resources with Jesse Jr. to buy and subdivide a tract that was platted in 1901 as “Sherwood’s Addition to Brookland.” It stretched from 16th to 18th St and Jackson to Brentwood Road. 

According to Sherwood family stories, Jesse Jr. helped to lay out the streets in Brookland, using his own team of mules and equipment and charging $25 a week.  

For the next few years, the brothers ran the food stalls and developed their subdivision. James joined with his father-in-law and others to form and build the King David Masonic Lodge at the corner of 12th and Monroe in 1911. It became one of the social hubs of the neighborhood. 

Then Jesse Jr. decided to try something new. In 1914, he built the American Theater at First Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW and began showing movies to white audiences. He sold it a few years later, but he had dipped his toe in the theater business and found it to his liking. The American was later renamed the Sylvan Theater and became an African American movie house. The building still stands at 106-112 Rhode Island Avenue NW, where a variety of retail outlets occupy the space. 

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James, in the meantime, decided to leave the gardening business and turned his attention instead to banking. In 1916 he formed the Northeast Building Association, later the Captial City Savings & Loan Association,  and was its president for the next three decades. He sold his farm in 1919, bought a house at 1021 Newton Street NE, and moved in with his family. As it turns out, that is the house in which my wife and I currently live. For many years I looked for old photos of the house, but wasn’t able to find any until I wrote the photographic history of Catholic University in 2010. In the University archives I found a photo album from 1911. It had been put together by some nuns who were studying at the Catholic Sisters College, which had just opened that summer. They took a few photos of the Brookland home where they were renting a room - my home.

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1021 Newton St. NE, circa 1911. Photo courtesy Catholic University of America Archives.

The house doesn’t look all that different today, though there’s a railing around the porch, the front yard is bricked in, and there are no longer any shutters (or nuns). 

James was happy at 1021 Newton, living half a block from the Merchant’s Bank & Trust Company, where he was named manager in 1922. The following year he became manager of its successor, the Brookland Branch of the Hamilton National Bank, a position he held until his retirement. In 1922 his daughter Lucy was married to Dr. Redmond Mayo at the family home. The Evening Star covered the event and described it this way:

The ceremony was performed in the home of the bride’s parents at 1021 Newton street northeast by the Rev. James A Many, and was followed by a reception. Palms, ferns and oak leaves were banked in the parlor and studded with white dahlias, before which the prie dieu was placed…The bride, who was escorted and given in marriage by her father, wore white crepe meteor and lace embroidered in pearls and trimmed with orange blossoms. Her tulle veil was held by a bandeau of pearls, and she carried a shower bouquet of bride roses.

Sitting in my living room, I have tried to imagine what that scene looked like and wished I was able to find a picture of the event, but so far no luck. The bride’s husband, Dr. Redmond Mayo, ran a drug store on the northwest corner of 12th and Monroe Streets until his sudden death in 1927 from pneumonia.

That same year, Jesse Sherwood Jr. opened his second theater, which he named for himself. The Jesse Theater at 18th and Irving Streets NE looked like a medieval fortress and had lights set in the ceiling to resemble stars. The opening film was “Smile, Brother, Smile.” The theater ran successfully for many years until 1953, when Louis Bernheimer, the operator of the theater, began to show art films. Bernheimer changed the name in 1958 to the Stanton Art Theatre, but audiences dwindled, and soon it was showing adult movies. Here is a photo from that period. Notice that the huge "Jesse” sign atop the building remained after the name change.

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Photo courtesy Historical Society of Washington

The theater closed in the 1990s, and today is the Capital Temple Church.

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In 1930, James Sherwood sold his home at 1021 Newton and built a new house at 15th and Newton. It was to be his last Brookland home, and was built on land that was part of his father’s original tract.

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The James Sherwood home at 3514 15th St. NE

In 1937, Jesse Sherwood Jr. built and opened what was billed as “the finest neighborhood showhouse in Washington” - the Newton Theater, designed by John Zink and operated by Louis Bernheimer. Located at 12th and Newton Streets on the site of the old Brookland Baptist Church, which had burned in 1926, the art-deco theater opened to great fanfare.

The Newton showed first-run films for nearly three decades, but by the early 1960s revenues had dropped to the point that it was forced to close. Catholic University acquired the building and the School of Music used it for a time, primarily as storage. In the late 1970s a local group tried to revive the Newton as a movie house, investing $50,000 in restoration, but they couldn’t make a go of it and after a year it closed. The building was then converted to a Peoples Drug Store, which preserved the exterior, if not the interior. Today it is a CVS.

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Both Sherwood brothers lived long lives, well into their 90s. Jesse died in 1965 and still owned the Jesse and Newton theaters, although he had been retired from business for many years. James died in 1957 as one of the most esteemed and venerated members of the Brookland community, which he and his brother had worked so hard to build.

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The Sherwood brothers, James (l) and Jesse (r) late in life. Photo courtesy Emily Morrison.

Big thanks to two people who gave me a great deal of help with this post: Kim Williams of the DC Historic Preservation Office, and Emily Morrison, great-grandaughter of James Sherwood.

© Robert Malesky 2016