The Colonel’s House

It struck me the other day just how lucky we Brooklanders are that Brooks Mansion still stands after all this time. Hardly any of the area’s other estate houses survive. I’ve also often wondered what it really looked like when Colonel Brooks and his family were still living there. There are no period images of the mansion that I have ever seen, surprisingly enough.

Jehiel Brooks and his wife, Ann Queen, built their home between 1837 and 1840 and named it Bellair. It cost $25,000 to build, as shown in this expense list the Colonel prepared in 1840: 

Courtesy of The Catholic University of America Archives

Fortunately for us, when the Brooks mansion was nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, a comprehensive architectural and archeological report was provided, accompanied by an 1863 map that shows remarkable detail: 

Library of  Congress.

The map was drawn by a private in the Federal Army, Robert Adolph Hodasevich, and although he mistakes Colonel Brooks’s rank as Captain, his map is otherwise quite accurate. The report and the map together allow us to paint a picture of the Brooks estate in the middle of the Civil War.

Imagine you were coming to visit the Brooks family during that era. You might take a carriage from downtown, ride up Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) to the intersection with Bunker Hill Road (now 4th and Michigan). Ahead of you is a tree-lined path that leads to the Middleton estate (now the site of Catholic University). 

You turn right and follow Bunker Hill Road down the hill. You can see Fort Bunker Hill on the next hill ahead, with a supply wagon heading toward it. At the bottom of the hill to the left are the tents of some camping soldiers (now Turkey Thicket field).  Your carriage turns right into a narrow tree-lined driveway that opens into a broad ring of trees surrounding a well-manicured lawn. The driveway circles in front of an impressive Greek-revival manor house. 

 Photo by Tyler Nelson

The Brooks mansion isn’t very large by Washington standards, only three stories tall and 45 feet square (the eastern wing was a much later addition), but it is striking, built solidly of brick with a stucco covering made to look like stone. The front portico is constructed of beautiful dressed granite, with Doric columns and double entrance doors with sidelights and a transom.

click to enlarge

As impressive as the house is, you are equally struck by the beautiful grounds. It’s clear Colonel Brooks cares a great deal about landscaping and horticulture. You spot a walled formal garden to the right of the mansion and walk over to take a look. It is large, extending 90 feet or so from the house (well into today’s Metro bus plaza). Inside the garden wall is a greenhouse, a well, flower and vegetable gardens, and plum, cherry, apricot, nectarine, and fig trees. 

As you wander around the garden to the back of the house you notice a number of additions on the south side. There’s a kitchen building with a smaller laundry attached to it as well as storage buildings, probably for tools and garden equipment. Those additions extend the mansion into an L shape. On the east side of the house a peach orchard stretches up the hill (now Newton Street) and you see another path leading south to more outbuildings, a large open field, and an apple orchard (now Lawrence Street). 

The back entrance. The kitchen and other additions would have stretched from the doorway to the camera position.

Altogether it is quite a grand estate, if not as imposing as those of the wealthier area landowners. Jehiel and Ann Brooks lived in their mansion for the rest of their lives. Ann died in 1876, Jehiel ten years later. They are buried together in Rock Creek Cemetery.

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