History

The Brown Center for Public Humanities is located in the historic Nightingale-Brown House at 357 Benefit Street. It was founded as the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization following the death of John Nicholas Brown in 1979, when his widow and children established an educational foundation to encourage study and research in American art, history, architecture, and historic preservation. In 1995, the Center became a part of Brown University, and in 2006 it became the headquarters of the Public Humanities program. In 2008, the Center changed its name to the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage to more accurately describe the work of the Center and the students in the Public Humanities Program.  Today, students, faculty, and staff at the Center work together to advance the field of Public Humanities through scholarship, research, and public programs.

The Nightingale-Brown House was built in 1792 for Providence merchant Joseph Nightingale. One of the grandest houses in the city, it served as a testament to the wealth of its owner, who was founder of the merchant partnership of Clark and Nightingale. In 1814, Nicholas Brown, after whom the university is named, purchased the home from Nightingale’s heirs, becoming the first of five successive generations of the Brown family to live here. Over the years, the Brown family adapted the large Georgian-style home and its surrounding property to meet the needs and tastes of each generation. The Nightingale-Brown House includes additions built for scholar and bibliophile John Carter Brown by architects Thomas Tefft (1853) and Richard Upjohn (1862-64). The firm of Boston landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the garden and grounds in 1890. During the 1920s, John Nicholas Brown redecorated the house in neo classical and American colonial revival motifs.

From 1985 to 1993 the Nightingale-Brown House underwent extensive renovation to correct problems including rot, termite infestation, and unintended damage from past alterations. Structural engineers reinforced the inadequate original post-and-beam framing with steel, carpenters restored interior woodwork and decorative details, and living spaces and furnishings on the first floor were returned to their mid-twentieth-century appearance. Upper floors were converted for academic uses.

For more information about the Nightingale-Brown House and its museum collections, please contact Ron M. Potvin, Assistant Director and Curator.

We also invite you to take our digital, self-guided tour to learn more about the Nightingale-Brown House.