Historic Structures

John Brown House, Providence Rhode Island

Date added: September 7, 2018 Categories: Rhode Island House Mansion

John Brown was the youngest of three sons of a wealthy prominent Providence family of merchants. In 1771 he left the family firm, probably as a result of his interest in the slave trade, which was strongly opposed by his older brother Moses, a Quaker. One of his ships, the General Washington, was the first Rhode Island vessel to the East Indies and one of the first American ships to sail on Chinese waters.

Brown was an ardent patriot, and was deeply implicated in the Gaspee affair of 1772, a harbinger of the American Revolution. Brown ships supplied gunpowder and war materials for American forces and after the war he was one of the major proponents for bringing a reluctant Rhode Island into the union of states.

When he built his new house on the hill he began the development of open land along southern Benefit Street, which today provides Providence with some of its most beautiful historic houses.

The John Brown House was designed by his brother, Joseph, an amateur architect, also responsible for the First Baptist Meeting House in Providence, another national historic landmark. The house took two years to build, 1786-88. There were originally four outbuildings, a coach house, kitchen, stable, and wood house with bathing house. The first mention of an addition, an ell one story high is noted in an 1841 insurance policy. Sometime between 1860 and 1875, this addition was enlarged and the original round headed windows of the rear wall were made into openings into the ell. Marsden Perry, who bought the house in 1901, substituted the present front doorway and installed ornamental plaster ceilings in the east drawing rooms.

In 1936, John Nicholas Brown bought the building from Perry's estate and donated it to the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1942. The building has been undergoing gradual restoration of the interior and has just been renovated on the exterior. It is used as the offices of the Rhode Island Historical Society which also operates it as a house museum.