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Inside St. Anselm’s Abbey, Brookland's Philip Johnson-designed monastery

This once “overflowing,” now dwindling monastery aspires to become a D.C. destination

All photos by Alyssa Kopervos

At St. Anselm’s Abbey, just north of Brookland, a small collection of Tudor-style buildings encircle a white boxy cement monastery, which in 1960 became the first completed development in D.C. for architect Philip Johnson.

Three years before he would bring his distinct cement style to the Kreeger Gallery, an art space down the street from Georgetown University, Philip Johnson experimented with design in various religious projects around the country, including the Roofless Church, an innovative open air place of worship that covers a city block, and the St. Anselm’s Abbey Monastery where he would completely revamp the look of a traditional monastery.

To match the surrounding buildings, the monastery is brick at its base. On top sits a giant cement slab, which is supported by cement columns that get increasingly narrow at their base, a nod to cutting edge architectural trends of the time.

“If it were on a college campus, you wouldn’t notice it, but as a monastery it looks like something out of Star Trek,” says Hilary Lewis, curator of the Glass House, a 1949-built development that has since become a Philip Johnson museum. She worked closely with the architect before his death and has written two books on Johnson.

Cement fascinated young artists in the early 1960s, she explains, who focused on pushing its “plastic qualities”—its potential to be manipulated into any shape—and Johnson, who had previously been a home builder, was eager to employ these new techniques without being bound to the expectations of tenants.

Lewis explains, “A religious building is one of the preferred projects you could get. It’s less about real estate and more about artistic expression.”

For the monks, the development would serve as a place to manage their ballooning numbers. As Johnson’s monastery was being built, 34 monks filled the main church, a long and traditionally designed building with a pointed wooden roof and a small chapel inside, that was completed in the 1930s.

“We were overflowing,” says James Wiseman, the Abbot at St. Anselm’s. He joined the Abbey while Johnson’s monastery was being completed and remembers that many of the monks chose not to move to the new monastery until certain alterations had been added to make the building more suitable.

Getting into the monastery requires walking up a set of steep cement stairs which, at the insistence of older monks, now has a guard railing. The dark metal bars, over the years, have leaked rust onto the cement. Doors to bedrooms and offices line the hallway, which leads around a courtyard. Wiseman describes a swirling vortex of snow that formed in the courtyard one winter. Without the glass panels which surround the courtyard, the snow would have been at his front door. For Wiseman, Philip Johnson had “imagined a courtyard from the Mediterranean, but that doesn’t work in this climate.”

As more monks moved to Johnson’s monastery, the main church’s bedrooms took on other uses, especially now since only 13 monks live full-time at St. Anselm’s Abbey. The first floor’s rooms are reserved for retired monks who share an on-staff caretaker and are often visited by family. The remaining rooms are for monastery guests. The Washington Post called the over 200 weary guests that St. Anselm’s receives yearly as “hypertensive stockbrokers, burned-out journalists, depressed lawyers—men who called, wanting to check in for a few days of serious contemplation.”

Incidentally, what has brought people to St. Anselm’s is not Philip Johnson’s architectural reputation, but rather it is the small dormitories with twin-sized beds in this older building, which look like something out of a picture book and have become an excursion for the few outsiders in the District who know about them.

With all of a monk’s salary going to the Abbey, they keep the lights on and employ a small team: rotating receptionists, a caretaker for retired monks, a cook, and a layman beekeeper who tends to the beehives of Brother Maurus Wolf who has passed on.

In a wide dining room with wooden tables, monks in black gowns file in from the chapel. They point out where to get ice from the kitchen and talk about how their small garden will not survive the chill tomorrow morning. Where the chicken wire drapes too low sometimes deers jump over and eat tomatoes from Father Christopher Wyvill’s personal farm. On a central table, tuna salad sandwiches and clam chowder are served buffet style for everyone to share.

Within the next 10 years, the monks aspire to turn the guest rooms into a destination for members of Congress.

“We are losing good Congressmen to the stress of D.C.,” says Wiseman. He takes inspiration from Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s campaign to bring meditation to Capitol Hill. A more immediate goal is larger rooms with queen-sized beds to accommodate married couples.

The St. Anselm’s Abbey’s founding church, Fort Augustus in Scotland, which is honored with a large mural in the basement of the monastery, was converted into condominiums that overlook Lake Loch Ness with the original stone facade preserved. To the monks, Fort Augustus represents a heritage that goes beyond Washington, D.C. With an almost 100-year history in the District, these men in traditional black robes teach at Catholic University of America and the St. Anselm’s High School. Making adjustments to bring in more visitors is part of the mission for a dwindling number of monks striving to continue their impact.