Brookland's Lost Sidney Estate: Thomas Jefferson Slept Here
A grassy knoll on the campus of the Catholic University of America, just to the northwest of the university's main library, is the site where one of the city's most historic country farmhouses once stood. Called Sidney by its owners, Samuel Harrison Smith and his wife Margaret Bayard Smith, the estate became a cherished refuge from the dirt and grime of the early capital city and an early social center. Margaret saw her country residence as a place to preserve "this sweet glow of the soul." The stolid house would survive more than a century and a half, weathering two wars and eventually being subsumed into CUA as a relic of the past, the city growing rapidly around it.
|Circa 1920 postcard view of St. Thomas Hall at the Catholic University of America. The original 1804 "Sidney" farmhouse is in the center part of the building (author's collection).|
Though Samuel and Margaret would live the rest of their lives in Washington, Margaret was disheartened when the young couple arrived at what seemed like a frontier outpost in 1800. They lived in a modest, newly finished house on New Jersey Avenue on Capitol Hill that Samuel rented along with another new building for his print shop.
In 1804, the Smiths purchased a 160-acre tract known as Turkey Thicket in Washington County (the part of the District outside the original L'Enfant city). The farm was located at a fork in the quiet country road that ran northeast as an extension of North Capitol Street (now Lincoln Road NE and part of Michigan Avenue NE). The Smiths renamed the estate Sidney, for Algernon Sidney, a revered theorist of republicanism beheaded in England in 1683. They soon built a country cottage on the site.
Margaret loved the place, writing to her sisters:
"At five this afternoon we got a hack, and visited our retreat. I shall not pretend now to describe it. All I will say is that I am delighted with it. A good house on top of a high hill, with high hills all around it, embower'd in woods, thro' an opening of which the Potomack, its shores and Mason Island are distinctly seen. I have never been more charmingly surprised than on seeing this retreat, but enough of it by and by. We go there Wednesday.... When I get among my little mountains and towering woods, I shall write you wonderful letters...."
As she predicted, Margaret thoroughly enjoyed her time at Sidney, even if it was primarily in the warmer months and often without Samuel, who continued to be consumed with work on the Intelligencer. She became a writer, penning novels and children's books at Sidney. The couple entertained many visitors, including good friend Thomas Jefferson, who likely stayed the night on at least one occasion, as well as Henry Clay and his wife Lucretia, with whom Margaret had become fast friends. James and Dolley Madison also visited, as did William and Anna Maria Thornton, and Albert and Hannah Gallatin. Margaret's letters describing the many social events the Smiths attended form an important commentary on early Washington society.
|This sketch of Sidney first appeared in the November 13, 1889, edition of The Evening Star.|
Samuel eventually grew weary with the newspaper business and sold the Intelligencer in 1810 to his protégé, Joseph Gales. Margaret was delighted to have more time with him at Sidney, where she insisted his health improved. She wrote her sister, "Oh how I rejoice that we have thrown anchor into the beautiful haven of private life." The respite was brief, however; Smith turned to finance, joining the Bank of Washington as a director. In 1813, President James Madison appointed him as the first commissioner of revenue of the Treasury Department, and in 1814 he became Secretary of the Treasury.
As the British marched on Washington on August 24, 1814, the Smiths were warned by a neighbor boy that the enemy was near: "The enemy are advancing, our own troops are giving way on all sides and retreating to the city. Go, for God's sake, go." The couple hurriedly hid valuables in the cellar and fled to Brookeville, Maryland. Soon after the battle, they returned with trepidation at what damage they might discover but found all was quiet. They encountered a broken and abandoned cannon and met a few straggling soldiers passing across their grounds. One, who was standing with his musket at their front gate, asked if he could have a drink of water. Otherwise, the only damage was from the violent summer storm that had wrecked fences and trees. Margaret wrote that "Hundreds, I may say thousands of our flying troops pass'd thro our farm after the engagement. The English got within half a mile of us and have plunder'd our neighbors on the adjoining farms,—the intervening wood hid us from them." Separately, she noted that "The battle was very near to us. In the next farm, there was skirmishing, and 10 dead bodies were found..."
The Smiths finally sold Sidney in 1839, and in 1844 James Middleton and his son Erasmus J. Middleton (1804-1882) purchased a 62-acre portion of the estate, including the Smith house. Erasmus Middleton, said to be a quiet and gentle soul, was clerk of the D.C. Criminal Court for over 30 years, spending his whole career at the court. After his father James died in 1869, Erasmus lived on the estate with his wife Ellen, their son and daughter, and as many as seven enslaved individuals, who worked the fields. According to a 1987 report on historic resources in Brookland, the Middletons ran their estate as a working farm, powered virtually entirely by enslaved labor. One enslaved man, Augustus "Gusty" Shaw, was described in 1862 emancipation records as an "excellent farmer, gardener, and marketeer" who had overseen the operations of the entire Middleton farm since 1857. Erasmus Middleton also undertook the first of several major additions to the original house built by the Smiths, adding an eastern wing with a covered veranda.
|Sketch of the entry hall of the Sidney farmhouse, from The Evening Star, November 13, 1889.|
The Civil War once again brought soldiers to the area, although no military engagements took place. (Fort Stevens in Brightwood was the only D.C. fort to see action, when Confederate General Jubal Early unsuccessfully attacked Washington from the north in July 1864.) The ring of forts that protected Washington City ran directly through the Middleton farm, with Fort Slemmer located a few hundred yards to the northwest of the house and Fort Bunker Hill less than a mile to the east. Fort Slemmer was a small earthen redoubt equipped with four cannon. Its greatest impact to the Middleton farm came from the clearing of trees to improve sight lines and from the poorly disciplined volunteer soldiers of the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, who occasionally foraged from Middleton farm animals and who, with much idle time on their hands, brawled incessantly among themselves.
Erasmus Middleton died in 1882, and four years later his widow, Ellen Middleton, sold the farm to a group of Roman Catholic bishops who planned to build a new Catholic University of America there. For years, church leaders had debated the wisdom of establishing an American research university dedicated to the Catholic faith. The location was debated as much as the purpose, and eventually Washington, DC, won out. After young heiress Mary G. Caldwell donated $300,000 to jumpstart the effort, the old Middleton farm was purchased, and planning began for the university's first major building, a grand Romanesque Revival structure completed in 1889 and eventually dubbed Caldwell Hall.
There had been some grousing about the university's location within DC—that it was too far out in the country—but the 62-acre Middleton farm was purchased anyway. The Washington Daily Critic reported in May 1885 the sale was to go through as soon as the previous owners "guaranteed the removal of any nuisance that might be in existence of the new university." The nuisance in question was an objectionable odor emanating from "the bad drainage of a house on the property." Apparently, it was resolved by the time the sale was finalized in October.
|The former Middleton Manor as it appeared in 1896, before major additions were made. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.|
"The Middleton place, now known as the Catholic University grounds, has a picturesque and commanding location," The Evening Star observed in May 1888. "An old-fashioned drive-way, between rows of trees leading to the old house, starts from the intersection of Lincoln avenue [Lincoln Road NE] with the Bunker hill road [Michigan Avenue NE]." This long pathway from the main road up to the old house was one of the university's distinctive early features.
|A boarded walkway lined with cypress trees ran from what is now Michigan Avenue NE to the door of St. Thomas College, dimly visible in the distance of this 1900 stereoview photo (author's collection).|
With the university initially focused on constructing its large new building, the old Sidney/Middleton farmhouse stood unused and neglected a short distance to the east. However, the university solicited individual religious orders to establish their own affiliated "houses of studies" in and around the university as living quarters and study centers for their members. The first to accept this offer were the Paulist Fathers, officially known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, a group whose mission was to convert non-Catholics in America. In 1889 the university leased the Middleton farmhouse to the Paulists as its first affiliated house of studies, to be called St. Thomas College.
Ten Paulist students moved into St. Thomas College, along with Fr. Augustine Hewitt, one of the founders of the order and a university instructor. A reporter for The Washington Post visited the house in 1893, noting "On entering the house the barrenness of the formerly well-decorated walls is apparent. But there is one object that draws attention. It is the large wheelchair of Rev. Father Hewitt, the aged survivor of the five founders of the Paulist Order. For years, Father Hewitt has been a very great sufferer, and for a long time he has been unable to walk, except with much pain. He almost lives in his invalid chair."
The initial 10 students grew to 22 by 1897, when the house was expanded with a third floor and an addition on the north side. The following year, the Paulists received permission to the extend the new addition another 40 feet. Further work may have been completed in 1899, resulting in a sprawling structure that looked little like the farmhouse originally built by the Smiths.
|Postcard view of St. Thomas College as it appeared when the Paulists were using it (author's collection).|
These additions were only a temporary fix, however, and by 1907 the Paulists were actively fundraising to build a new, much larger seminary building. The Evening Star commented that the building "has been patched and rearranged to meet conditions until it is well-nigh to the point of being uninhabitable" and The New York Times predicted "The old Middleton manor, which [the Paulists] lease, will soon be torn down." It wasn't; the building would remain in serve for many more decades.
When the Paulists finally moved to their imposing new seminary at 3025 4th Street NW in 1914, CUA renovated Middleton Manor for use as a dormitory for lay students, renaming it St. Thomas Hall. "Though not so stately as the other great residence halls [which were largely for priests and upper class men], St. Thomas Hall is an attractive home for our young students," the university's monthly bulletin cheerfully observed in early 1915.
On the whole, however, students and university administrators alike scorned the old building as a ramshackle eyesore. Occasionally, glimmers of the house's rich past occasionally struck a chord. After another round of interior renovations were completed in 1934, The Tower noted "All the stairways have new treads and landings and we haven't yet become quite accustomed to them. Somehow we yearn for those old hallowed steps, worn by the feet of ages and for the myriad squeaks of the old wooden floor."
|1950s postcard view of St. Thomas Hall (author's collection).|
A 1949 article in the Catholic University Bulletin noted that the pebble-dashed walls of the original house could still be made out on the south elevation of the structure, later extensions engulfing it on all sides. At the time, the house served as the CUA Child Center and the School of Social Service. Several original interior features were still visible—a few window frames and door frames as well as distinctive arches in the cellar. But the clock was ticking.
|1960s postcard view of St. Thomas Hall. The trees on the left may date from the same trees seen lining the path to St. Thomas College in the circa 1900 stereoview image (author's collection).|
In 1962, the District adopted a new fire code that would require several safety updates to St. Thomas Hall, including closing off stairwells, eliminating blind corridors, and improving ground floor egress. The university had until 1971 to make the necessary modifications, which in December 1968 it estimated would cost $146,000. University officials, never ones to love the old building, decided the time had come to forego further investment and take the venerable old building down.
In July 1970, after most students had left the campus for the summer break, the Ace Wrecking Company demolished Margaret Bayard Smith's beloved Sidney. "Washington lost one of its landmark structures this week when wreckers leveled old Sidney, recently named St. Thomas Hall, in the heart of the campus of Catholic University," the Washington Post reported, adding that "A spokesman for the University stated the reason for destroying the old relic was its poor condition, difficulty in heating and unsuitability as a campus building."
|The site of Sidney as it appears today. The sidewalk traces the original route to the house from Michigan Avenue (photo by the author).|
Given the decades-long scorn for the historic house, it's remarkable that it lasted as long as it did—and a pity that it did not last another decade or two, until the era of historic preservation was more firmly established in DC law. The site where it stood has remained empty to this day, sidewalks still marking the paths that once led to the Smiths' bucolic retreat.
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Special thanks to Dr. Maria Mazzenga and Brandi Marulli of the CUA Archives for their gracious assistance. Information about Sidney from the Archives can be found here and here. Another key source for this article was the letters of Margaret Bayard Smith, compiled by Gaillard Hunt, ed., in The First Forty Years of Washington Society (1906). Other sources included: William E. Ames, A History of the National Intelligencer (1972); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts (2010); Roy J. Deferrari, Memoirs of the Catholic University of America 1918-1960 (1962); John Tracy Ellis, The Formative Years of the Catholic University of America (1946); Robert P. Malesky, The Catholic University of America (2010); C. Joseph Nuesse, The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History (1990); Robert Verrey and Laura Henley, Report of the Results of the Brookland Community/Catholic University Historic Resources Survey (1987); Hayden Wetzel, Historic Landmark nomination for St. Paul's College (2017); Kim Williams, Lost Farms and Estates of Washington, D.C. (2018), and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.