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Under the Elms - Brown Alumni Monthly - Feb 1997
BROWN FAMILY HOME IS NOW A HOME FOR UNIVERSITY SCHOLARS
This is the story of a house. From 1814 to 1985 the house at 357 Benefit Street was home to five generations of the Nicholas Brown family. Now, after a seven-year renovation, it is poised to serve Brown University and the public well into the future.At a Brown Corporation meeting on May 28, President Gregorian announced that the Brown family educational foundation was giving the Nightingale-Brown House, the largest wood-frame eighteenth-century mansion in the country, to the University. The University will take over the programs
and assets of the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization, which now occupies the house. Valued at $17.1 million, the gift to Brown includes a $6.3-million endowment to preserve the house and support the center's programs.John Nicholas and Anne S.K. Brown were the last of the descendants of Nicholas Brown to raise their family in the house. A longtime University Fellow, Mr. Brown died in 1979.When Mrs. Brown died in 1985, she deeded the house to the newly-formed center to use as a facility for visiting scholars.
Many Brown family archives are located in the house, and a project is under way to catalog them.Restoring the house for public use has not been easy. The center's executive director, Robert Emlen, a former curator at the
Rhode Island Historical Society who now teaches in Brown's American civilization department, quickly discovered the house was in terrible condition. Spongy floors, bulging walls, and deep cracks in plaster ceilings were symptoms of severe structural problems. Suffering from rot, termite infestation, and damage incurred when heating systems and electrical wiring were added, the house was in danger of imminent collapse.The house was literally held together by the paint - twenty-three coats of lead-based paint in places, Emlen says.It was
rather like an eggshell. In fact, when we began reconstruction the architects advised we do one section of the house at a time so it wouldn't collapse.Over a period of seven years, the 19,000-square-foot mansion was
dismantled and rebuilt. The restorers obtained oak from western Rhode Island, the original timber used to build the house in 1792. They also installed steel beams to support the walls. The outside of the house has been painted a shade of yellow called bay rum, which matches the color the young John Nicholas Brown chose in 1923. The front of the house has been refitted with the original clapboards; enough were salvaged from the entire house to cover one three-story wall.We wanted to give the house new life but retain its old appearance, Emlen says.
The extensive restoration was largely funded by the sale of a single antique desk from the house, auctioned for a record $12.1 million in 1989 at Christie's.It was replaced with a custom-made facsimile.Nearly as arduous as the restoration was dealing with city building codes. Transforming the house from a private residence to a public structure meant conforming to endless regulations, many of which would have destroyed its historical integrity. In
the end, the Providence Zoning Board of Review granted a special exemption to allow many of the house's historic features to remain.It was a house worth fighting for, Emlen says of the sometimes-pitched battles with the city.Brick was the chief building material in most of the great residences of the eighteenth century, witness the 1786 John Brown House, Nicholas' brother's house next door.But business partners and brothers-in-law John Innes Clark and Joseph Nightingale chose oak, chestnut, and pine for their houses. The Clark house burned in 1849 and was replaced with the brick house at 383 Benefit Street, which now houses Brown's development office.After Nightingale died in 1797, his family continued to live at 357 Benefit Street until 1814, when his business competitor, Nicholas Brown, bought it. Ten years earlier Brown had given $5,000 to change the name of the university on College Hill from Rhode Island College to Brown University. In 1814 he was treasurer of the University, and his son, John Carter Brown, was a student.The Brown family added to the original house, a fifty-five-foot cube, twice. In the 1850s Thomas Tefft designed a two-story addition to the main house and a brick stable and carriage house behind it. In the 1860s a library wing, designed by Richard Upjohn, was added to house the rare-books collection now at the John Carter Brown Library. In 1892 Frederick Law Olmsted
redesigned the grounds. In the 1920s John Nicholas Brown redecorated the house in the colonial revival style, including installing pine paneling from a 1740s English manor house in the dining room.The restored Nightingale-Brown House, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, reopened in 1993. The formal rooms
on the ground floor can be rented for functions, and offices for visiting scholars are on the second floor. Residential facilities are in the attached carriage house. Tours are offered by appointment.According to Emlen, about a dozen projects are under way or will be undertaken by center fellows this year, including research
on the Gorham Company's manufacture of stained glass and a study of black Rhode Islanders in the Revolutionary War.The house served the Brown family for nearly 200 years, Emlen says.Now it is ready to serve Brown University and the public for another 200 years.