For decades, Colonel Brooks’ Tavern had been the unofficial center of the Brookland neighborhood, a place where longtime regulars, college students, hospital workers, professors and nuns came for burgers and glasses of beer.
But a brutal triple murder in 2003 — when a robbery ended with three employees being shot execution-style in the walk-in freezer — was the beginning of the end of that.
Next month, the tavern in Northeast Washington will close in preparation for demolition in October. In place of the tavern and a few other nearby buildings, a $50 million-plus development, with more than 200 apartments and some retail space near a Metro stop, will change Brookland from a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes to a denser, more urban place.
Along with Catholic University’s expansion nearby, Brookland is now “a neighborhood in transition” and a place that could become a destination, said David Roodberg, president of Horning Brothers, who is working with tavern owner Jim Stiegman and the Menkiti Group on the project.
Stiegman knows that some neighbors were upset with the scale of the changes, but others were glad to have more options coming. For many years, his bar dominated the quiet neighborhood.
Stiegman helped open the tavern 32 years ago, finding 200-year-old pine planks from a barn for the bar, wooden pews from a Pennsylvania church to use as booths and old photographs for the walls. Col. Jehiel Brooks owned the mansion across the street long ago — the neighborhood is named for him — and surviving family members gave Stiegman portraits from legendary Civil War photographer Mathew Brady’s studio.
From the start, in part because those in the neighborhood had very few other places to go, the tavern had a wild mix of customers.
On Capitol Hill, where Stiegman had had another restaurant, everyone looked like a Hill staffer, he said: khaki pants, navy blazer, striped tie. At Colonel Brooks’, Howard University professors sat with plumbers and drunk college kids and priests from CU.
Over the years, regulars congregated for lunch, bartenders and waiters fell in love and had weddings there, customers bid on neon beer signs to raise money for charity.
One night, there were five men there taller than 6-foot-8 (including former Washington Bullets player Manute Bol, who made 6-foot-8 guys look like shrimps). One afternoon, a Soviet leader contacted “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace there while Wallace was in the middle of an interview with union leaders from a nearby hospital, Stiegman said.
After the murder, things were never quite the same. Stiegman began talking with Bo Menkiti, head of the Brookland-based real estate company. By spring 2014, he hopes, there will be a handful of shops open there and a restaurant or cafe, with tables outside where neighbors can gather.