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Distributed June 8, 1994
Contact Mark Nickel

A Center for the Study of American Civilization
Brown University To Receive Brown Family Archives and Ancestral Home

Brown University will assume the programs and assets of the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, a nonprofit organization, under terms of a gift to the University by the Brown family educational foundation.

The gift, announced at the May 28 meeting of the Brown Corporation by President Vartan Gregorian, will give the University stewardship of Brown family archives and the Nightingale-Brown House, home of Nicholas Brown (1769-1841), after whom the University is named. The assets of the Center, including the Nightingale-Brown House, are valued at approximately $17.1 million.

“This extraordinary gift, which will unite the parallel histories of the Brown family and its namesake University, will be of inestimable value to social historians, art historians and other scholars who study the history of American civilization,” Gregorian said. “Of special importance for us are the rich archives of the Brown family, which together with the University’s own holdings will provide a valuable primary source for the socio-economic history of Rhode Island and New England.”

The gift to the University includes:

  • The John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, located in the Nightingale-Brown House. This living laboratory of American culture serves visiting scholars, academic institutions and other organizations active in the study and practice of art, architecture, history and historic preservation.
  • The Nightingale-Brown House, a National Historic Landmark at 357 Benefit St. Built in 1792, the Nightingale-Brown House has been home to five generations of the Brown family. Reopened in 1993 after a seven-year restoration, the 19,000-square-foot building is thought to be the largest North American wood-frame house surviving from the 18th century.
  • Brown family archives, housed in two specially created vaults at the home. These historical materials, dating from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, provide part of the permanent physical record of a family that helped settle the Providence area in the late 1630s. Other portions of the family archives are in the collections of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the Rhode Island Historical Society.
  • An endowment, valued at approximately $6.3 million. This fund will help preserve the house and support the programs and activities of the John Nicholas Brown Center.

“The Nightingale-Brown House has been both our ancestral home and a Rhode Island landmark for more than two centuries,” said Nicholas Brown, who attended the Brown Corporation meeting with his brother and sister, J. Carter Brown and Angela Brown Fischer. “Through the John Nicholas Brown Center, the Brown family has maintained the building and its contents as a laboratory for connoisseurship and the study of American cultural history. We are pleased that the Center’s work will continue and that our family home and archives will continue to advance the academic mission of Brown University.”

Under the University’s stewardship, the house will be maintained as the Nightingale-Brown House and will continue to be used for historical, educational and scholarly purposes. The family archives will remain on the premises and may be augmented by other materials now maintained as part of the University’s own collection.

Brown University and the Brown Family

Brown University, founded in 1764 as Rhode Island College, was associated with the Brown family from the very beginning. Nicholas Brown I, one of the famous Brown merchants of Providence, was among the original 24 incorporators of the University. When the University moved from its original location in Warren, R.I., to its current home in Providence in 1770, the Corporation purchased an eight-acre site on College Hill partly from John and Moses Brown. Nicholas Brown and Co., the Brown brothers’ firm, was in charge of constructing “the College Edifice,” now known as University Hall.

It was Nicholas Brown II, a 1786 graduate of the College, after whom the University was named in 1804. At the age of 22, five years after his graduation, Nicholas Brown became a trustee of the University and served as a member of the Corporation for the rest of his life. Although his gifts to the University totaled more than $160,000 during his lifetime, Brown’s first gift of $5,000 to endow a chair in oratory led to the change in the school’s name. Many of the University’s current buildings on College Hill were built with the support of the Brown family, including Hope College, Manning Hall, Rhode Island Hall, Robinson Hall, The John Carter Brown Library, Carrie Tower, and the Annmary Brown Memorial.

The Nightingale-Brown House was built in 1792 for Joseph Nightingale, a Providence merchant. Nicholas Brown II purchased it in 1814 and it remained the family’s home for 171 years. Generations of Browns modified it to suit current styles and modernized it to accommodate new systems for cooking, plumbing, electricity and heating.

John Nicholas Brown (1900-1979), who acquired the house at age 21, had read architectural history as an undergraduate at Harvard University and began to improve and restore the building to its 18th-century style, giving it the appearance it has today. An accomplished man who was both a collector of Old Master drawings and a patron of modern art, John Nicholas Brown distinguished himself as assistant secretary of the Navy for Air under President Truman and as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. Locally, Brown was a founder of the Providence Preservation Society and of the Heritage Trust of Rhode Island. He was a trustee of the Brown Corporation from 1930 to 1935, when he became a fellow, and served as secretary of the Corporation from 1963 to 1971. He and his wife, the former Anne Seddon Kinsolving, raised three children – Nicholas, John Carter and Angela Bayard – the fifth generation of Browns to live in the family home.

In 1985, Anne S. K. Brown deeded the house to the newly formed John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization for use as a cultural resource for visiting scholars. Extensive renovations, during which the house was entirely dismantled, began in that same year and took seven years to complete. Workers rebuilt the walls to correct original structural problems, replaced rotted or termite-infested timbers, and restored or replaced historic wood and stone work. The house, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, reopened in the spring of 1993.

The John Nicholas Brown Center, created by the Brown family in 1985, has been at work preserving and cataloging furnishings, archiving the family papers, and overseeing restoration of the house. Since the house reopened in 1993, the Center has administered a series of scholarly programs including:

  • Fellowships. The Center provides a base of operations for scholars in all fields of American civilization, with special preference given to scholars working on Rhode Island topics. All scholars are provided with office space and access to materials; they may also choose to rent residential quarters in the 1853 carriage house.
  • Archives. The Center collects, preserves and catalogs materials from more than two centuries of Brown family history. It works in partnership with the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and with the Rhode Island Historical Society. All three institutions have extensive collections of Brown family papers including business records, personal correspondence, photographs and film.
  • Education. The Center disseminates information of interest to Rhode Island and greater New England audiences, based on the work of visiting scholars and Center staff.


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