The Nightingale Brown House
19,000 square feet, six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, three kitchens, and an acre of land compose the Nightingale-Brown House. Constructed in 1792, the house was purchased from the original owners, the Nightingale Family, by Nicholas Brown in 1814. Five generations of Browns would inhabit the house until 1985, when the home was donated to Brown University. The house, however, was far from ready to support the scholars who were meant to take over the space. The all-wood home had serious structural problems that would take eight years and eight million dollars to fix. Now alive with students and staff, the building has made the transition from home to the Brown Center for Public Humanities. (Caption written by Alex Goodman for the course, “Museum Collections and Collecting,” Fall 2012)
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. The location of the house on College Hill gave Nightingale a commanding view of the Providence River and its myriad ships, wharves, and warehouses filled with goods shipped from ports around the world. Nightingale was one of the first Providence merchants to build a house of this scale on College Hill, along with his neighbor John Brown, whose home – now a museum – John Quincy Adams considered "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.”
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). (His books are now at Brown’s John Carter Brown Library.) 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 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.
The Center is named after John Nicholas Brown II, whose interests included art and architecture, historic preservation, and philanthropy. His widow, Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown, and their children established the Center in his memory after his death, and it became part of Brown University in 1995.
The museum collections at the Nightingale-Brown House include more than 900 objects that represent the five generations of the Brown family that lived in the house. For example, the butler’s pantry contains more than 100 pieces of Canton China, imported to Providence aboard Brown family merchant vessels in the eighteenth century and used by the family of John Nicholas Brown in the twentieth century for their everyday meals. Other objects include a 1940 Steinway series “B” piano that is available for playing, several pieces of furniture made in the shops of Newport’s famed eighteenth-century furniture makers, and a hand-painted albumen print of “Pike’s peak from the Garden of the Gods” obtained by John Nicholas Brown I during his travels in the west. The extensive archives of the Brown family are at Brown’s John Carter Brown Library and John Hay Library, and at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Today, the Nightingale-Brown House contains a seminar room, graduate student and fellow work spaces, a public humanities library, and ample spaces for formal and informal gatherings by students and members of the Brown and Providence communities.
For more information about the Nightingale-Brown House and its museum collections, please contact Ron M. Potvin, assistant director and curator.
An art student named Alice Pelham Banniter painted this watercolor around 1802 while studying in New York City. When Banniter painted this scene, the house and church in the background were recent constructions, finished within the decade before her work. The home belonged to Mr. Joseph Nightingale, and it still stands 220 years later. The First Congregational Church, visible behind Nightingale’s home, burned down in 1815. Another element in Banniter’s painting that didn’t survive is the group of tombstones in the foreground. Like other early Providence families, the Nightingales and Browns buried their deceased on their property. They have since relocated these family plots, giving way to the Benefit Street landscape that we know today. (Caption written by Kayleigh Butera for the course, “Museum Collections and Collecting.”)
John Carter Brown was a self-proclaimed bibliophile. He amassed the thousands of books arranged in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that once lined the walls of this room, part of an 1862 addition to the house. This photograph depicts his library in the late 19th century. John Nicholas Brown I, who inherited his father’s collecting passion, funded and endowed the John Carter Brown Library to which he donated the collection upon his death in 1900. The library is now located on Brown’s Main Green. During the 1920s, John Nicholas Brown II redecorated the house according to classical European and American colonial motifs, which were maintained when the building was restored from 1988 to 1993. Despite the significant changes evident in this photograph, the objects that have outlasted their owners — like the books in this library — provide a sense of continuity, linking the five generations of the Brown family who lived here to each other and to the present day. (Caption written by Victoria Charette for the course, “Museum Collections and Collecting.”)
Depicted are three children of Nicholas Brown III, who grew up in this house. On the left, eight-year-old Anne Mary Brown holds a staff. In the center, three-year old Caroline Matilda sits on a cart. To the right, five-year old John Carter Brown wears a suit. John’s first cousin was also named John Carter Brown, namesake of the library on the Brown Main Green. Dressed in the appropriate European fashion, these children represent an aristocratic and educated American family of this time period. The fantastical landscape in the background sets them in an unknown time and space as a reminder of their eternal presence in the Brown house. (Caption written by Ana Rodriguez for the course, “Museum Collections and Collecting.”)
John Nicholas Brown is enjoying himself in the drawing room following the wedding of his daughter Angela in 1963. His son, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992, seems to be in on the joke, along with his cousin and god-daughter, Noreen Stonor Drexel, daughter of Lord Camoys of Stonor Park, Henley, UK.