Date July 17, 2023
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‘Love is strong as death’: The monumental history behind Carrie Tower

An iconic focal point of Brown’s Quiet Green, the 113-year-old clocktower was built as a memorial to the granddaughter of Brown University’s namesake.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — An icon on Brown University’s campus in Providence, the 95-foot-tall clocktower on the southeast corner of Prospect and Waterman streets is the tallest — but certainly not the only — memorial that an Italian count built in honor of his late wife. 

Known as Carrie Tower, the campanile clocktower stands on the Quiet Green adjacent to the Van Wickle Gates, Hope College and University Hall, part of the quintessential view of Brown’s campus. So recognizably “Brown,” the scene has adorned postcards showcasing both the University and the City of Providence for over a century.

But the story behind the clocktower might be more romantic than the view itself.

“ For me, the most important thing about the Carrie Tower is that it is a monument to love. It is the final step in a long story of mourning and remembering. ”

Dietrich Neumann Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Italian Studies

In 1875, eccentric globetrotter Count Paul Bajnotti of Turin, Italy, found himself in Rhode Island, serving as a diplomat. Many things in the state’s capital city captured his attention, but none more so than Carrie Mathilde Brown, granddaughter of Brown University namesake Nicholas Brown Jr. and sister of Annmary Brown.

Their spark was undeniable, and they were married just a year later at the summer home of the Browns on Narragansett Bay. For years, the couple traveled the world, as part of diplomatic posts in France, Italy and Russia, among other locations. But in 1892, Carrie contracted the flu, which progressed to a severe case of pneumonia. She died after 16 years of marriage to Bajnotti.

Heartbroken, Bajnotti set out on a quest to memorialize Carrie. Thinking back to their fortuitous meeting in Providence, he knew the perfect city in which to do so.

According to Brown Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Italian Studies Dietrich Neumann, Bajnotti honored his wife through a sculpture for Roger Williams Park; established an annual stipend for young women; paid for a stained glass window in her honor to be displayed in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church on George Street; and gave Providence one of its most magnificent fountain monuments — “Struggle of Life” by Enid Yandell — in Burnside Park, near Kennedy Plaza.

After he ran out of ideas for the city itself, Bajnotti approached Brown University and made a donation to have a clocktower erected in his late wife’s honor. It was designed by Guy Lowell of Boston, who was selected from a competition of well-known architects, and built by J. W. Bishop Company, with construction officially ending in 1904.

A closeup shows one of the tower's clock faces
Each side of Carrie Tower is intricately decorated. Photo by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University. 

On the tower’s foundation, above its entrance door, an inscription reads, “Love is Strong as Death,” an excerpt from Song of Songs 8:6-7 from the Old Testament. Bajnotti’s love for Carrie is also expressed in the structure’s details. Festoons of fruit decorate the base. At the top, above the clock face on each of the four sides of the tower flanked by eight panels of fruit, are, in rising succession: 32 carved urns, eight capitals, four shields and four urns with flame. It also featured a carillon — a set of bells played using a keyboard or by an automatic mechanism — that chimed every hour.

Today, the tower’s clocks are perpetually set at 12 o’clock, and the bell that students hear throughout the academic year rings not from Carrie Tower, but University Hall. And while the tower could benefit from aesthetic work, it’s structurally sound — Neumann says that Bajnotti’s monument to Carrie has withstood the test of time.

“For me, the most important thing about the Carrie Tower is that it is a monument to love,” Neumann said. “It is the final step in a long story of mourning and remembering.”

Reporting from this article drew on historical information from the Encyclopedia Brunoniana and archival issues of the Providence Journal.

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Carrie Tower's inscription reads "Love is as Strong as Death." It has been updated to reflect the correct inscription, "Love is Strong as Death."]