Robert Brent’s Road

The first two roads I wrote about, Bunker Hill Road to the north and Queen’s Chapel Road to the east, were both in existence before the construction of Washington began in 1790. The southern boundary of Brookland, Brentwood Road, wasn’t created until the early 1800s, when the first mayor of Washington, Robert Brent, built a mansion near the outskirts of the city.

I say “outskirts,” but we’re talking about 6th Street and Florida Avenue NE. Back then Florida Avenue was known as Boundary Road, and it defined the limits of Washington City. North of it lay Washington County, primarily farmland, which filled in the rest of the District diamond. Brentwood Road ran northeast from the mansion, much of it along the route of present-day Rhode Island Avenue.

1894 map by G.M. Hopkins, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge

Robert Brent was part of the wealthy Carroll family, who owned a good deal of the land on which this city was built. He was friends with most of the Washington elite, including President Thomas Jefferson. In 1802 Congress passed a bill incorporating the city and giving it a mayor, to be appointed by the President and an elected city council. On June 3, 1802, President Jefferson sent a letter to his friend Robert Brent, asking him to take the office. That same day, Brent wrote back, accepting. 

Brent served as mayor until 1811, overseeing construction of buildings and roads in the new city. His home was at 12th Street and Maryland Avenue SW, but in 1817 he decided to build a mansion for his daughter Eleanor and her new husband, North Carolina Congressman Joseph Pearson. To design the home he hired perhaps the most esteemed American architect of the day, Benjamin Latrobe, the designer of the U.S. Capitol. He called the mansion Brentwood.

What was Brentwood like in its heyday? In 1910, Joseph Pearson Farley, the great-grandson of Robert Brent, wrote about its glory days in his book Three Rivers: The James, the Potomac, the Hudson; A Retrospect of Peace and War:

In front of the building a broad circular clearance was cut, with openings through the woods — three wide vistas converging to a common center, the portico of the house. There was thus afforded a fine view of the Capitol, of the waters of the Anacostia, and of that portion of the city east of the Capitol, where George Washington had anticipated the greatest development… On entering the house one was always impressed by the spacious hall extending the full length of the main building parallel with its front face. The round room, with its folding doors at all times open, was immediately opposite the main entrance and, being handsomely furnished, showed to great advantage. Its elaborate carved and beautiful Italian marble mantel and imported chandelier, with its myriad of crystal prisms, lent a pleasing effect to the whole. On either side of the round room were folding doors which opened into the dining-room on the one hand and the drawing-room on the other, both of which rooms constituted the wings of the main building, and corresponded, so to express it, with the Senate Chamber and the House of Representatives of the building after which this mansion was designed.

Painting of Brentwood by Joseph Pearson Farley. Library of Congress

The road to the home, Brentwood Road, wound northeast, eventually hooking into Bunker Hill Road outside Bladensburg. In fact, it was sometimes called Old Bladensburg Road. Today much of it has been absorbed into other streets, especially Rhode Island Avenue, but bits and pieces remain all the way into Brentwood, Maryland (not to be confused with the Brentwood neighborhood in DC, around the original Brent estate).

After the Civil War the mansion came into the hands of Captain Carlisle Patterson and his heirs. It maintained its status for a while, even hosting President Grant, but over time the Pattersons were unable to keep up with its maintenance. The mansion died a slow, lingering death, disintegrating over the years, a forlorn reminder of earlier, better days. It became known as “The Old Patterson Home,” and the connection with the city’s first mayor was forgotten. In a final indignity, vandals broke into the burial vault near the house in September 1915, opened some coffins and scattered the bones around. In December of that year, perhaps mercifully, the house burned and Brentwood mansion disappeared forever. 

Part of the Patterson tract became a World War I army staging camp for a few years, known as Camp Meigs. In the 1920s, Union Market began development there.

Camp Meigs, 1918. Click for larger view. National Archives

The site of the original Brentwood mansion is now part of the Gallaudet University campus.

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