Like a dowager in faded finery, the Brooks mansion in Far Northeast has long been a regal and vulnerable relic, a landmark that has survived decades of neglect, demolition threats and vagrants who shattered its windows and pried open its massive doors.
Its brick walls bleached to a rosy pink, the mansion is little more than a shell of what it was 140 years ago when Col. Jehiel Brooks, the War of 1812 veteran who gave Brookland its name, lived there.
Vacant and vandalized for the past 10 years, the stately house at 10th and Monroe streets NE has become a quaint eyesore, patched and dowdy next to the nearby modern Metro station.
In recent weeks, however, the future of Brookland's oldest landmark has brightened considerably. The District government, which has allocated up to $1 million to renovate the mansion, is expected to take over the house, now owned by Metro, later this month and start repairs shortly thereafter, city officials said.
"The building needs a fantastic amount of work, but we think we have a workable solution to renovating and preserving the mansion," said Claude A. Ford, a vice president of the University of the District of Columbia, which will oversee the reconstruction. The city has authorized UDC to spend as much as $1 million to convert the mansion into a center for neighborhood education programs, Ford said.
A handful of Brookland residents have long championed the mansion, citing its historic and architectural importance.
A three-story Greek Revival house topped by a cupola and festooned with granite details, the mansion has been used at various times as a boarding house, a Catholic school and a convent.
In the early 1970s, after Metro officials announced plans to raze it and build a parking lot on the site adjacent to the Brookland station, neighborhood opposition saved the building. The District placed the mansion on its list of historic and cultural landmarks; later, the building won added protection when it was put on the National Register of Historic Places.
"I kept waiting for the day when I'd walk by and see them tearing it down," said Tom Rooney, a sculptor and Catholic University art professor who was a leader in the movement to save the mansion.
In 1978, Metro suggested exchanging the Brooks mansion site for a city-owned parcel off Minnesota Avenue NE. That exchange, which is expected to become final later this month, will transfer the building to the city, which in turn will renovate it and lend it to UDC, officials said.
Jehiel Brooks was a New York native, an Indian agent and treaty negotiator in Andrew Jackson's administration. He built the house in 1840 for his new bride, the former Ann Queen, daughter of a prominent Capitol Hill innkeeper. The couple named the house Bellair and made it the seat of their 140-acre estate--land that was part of her dowry and that, according to one history of Brookland, "flourished with orchards, gardens, varieties of oak trees and a greenhouse." Nevertheless, the farm barely sustained the family. Brooks' income came from other sources, including his law practice and writings.
After Jehiel Brooks' death in 1887, the house was sold and the estate subdivided. In 1888, the mansion and its remaining 2 1/2 acres were converted into a boarding house.
A year later, the mansion was bought by priests who used it as an arm of nearby Catholic University. A wing was added in 1894, but by the turn of the century the priests had moved to other offices at the university. The house, vacant for two years, was purchased by nuns, who converted the addition to a grammar school and established a convent in the main house.
Metro acquired the mansion in 1970 and, after preparing it for demolition in 1973, maintained the vacant house with window patches, new locks and periodic security patrols, Metro officials said.
"It's in shabby condition right now," said Joseph K. Jaskiewicz, Metro's assistant real estate director.
The interior of the house is now so dilapidated that it is dangerous to enter. Jaskiewicz said that a workman inspecting the second story several years ago fell through a rotted floor and injured his back.
Rot has not been the only enemy. Officials with the District's historic preservation office said some of the mansion's period decorations--carved stairway railings, for instance--have been taken from the house over the years.
The thefts, however, have not diminished the mansion's significance, they said.
"Architecturally, it's very interesting, and it's very significant for that area of Washington," said Tanya Beauchamp, a city preservationist. "There are not a lot of country houses left in the city."
The top-to-bottom repairs at the mansion will include window, door, roof and cornice replacements as well as installation of heating systems, an elevator, community rooms and offices. A university spokesman said the house will become a center for UDC extension courses, a companion facility to the university's community center at 1725 Lincoln Road NE.