This, the largest eighteenth-century wood-frame house in the country, is an important palimpsest of local cultural history. It was built for merchant Joseph Nightingale (1748-1797), whose business partner and brother-in-law John Innis Clarke built an identical house (destroyed by fire in 1849) one block south. Clarke’s widow, Elizabeth, sold this house in 1814 to Nicholas Brown (1769-1841), and his descendants lived here until 1985. Since then, it has been home to the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization. In the tradition of homes for the Providence rich, it began its life as yet another large cube. The robust detailing may seem somewhat dated for the 1790s but speaks to Providence’s enduring affection for such things. But what really beguiles here are the changes made by Brown family members as need dictated and wealth allowed. Nicholas’s son John Carter Brown (1791-1874) added the two-story service-wing addition on the south side and the barn and carriage house (originally with a bowling alley) in the rear, built from designs by architect Thomas Tefft in 1855. In 1864 John Carter Brown commissioned Richard Upjohn to build the wing on the northeast corner to house his “Bibliotheca Americana,” which ultimately came to rest at Brown University. His widow redecorated the house after his death and later commissioned Olmsted & Olmsted to design the gardens (fragments of which remain), but after the death of their son John Nicholas Brown I (1861-1901), the house languished, little used by the family, who by then preferred Newport, New York, and travel abroad.
When John Nicholas Brown II (1900-1979) inherited the house upon reaching his majority in the early 1920s he “restored” the house in fine Colonial Revival style. Employing the talents of Jackson, Robertson & Adams, Brown’s ambitious campaign stripped the woodwork in the northwest parlor, created a large drawing room from two smaller rooms on the northeast corner, fitted out the dining room with 1720s English paneling (also stripped of paint), and added moldings, a more elaborate staircase balustrade, and scenographic wallpaper (Zuber’s “North America”) in the main hall. A second major collection accrued here beginning in the 1930s as his wife, Anne S.K. Brown (1906-1985), gathered military books and objects, also eventually given to Brown University. By the late 1980s, repair work precipitated by a change in use from residence to offices revealed a significant failure of its structural systems, largely caused by water damage and termite infestation. What began as a minor repair became a complete rehabilitation from the post-and-beam frame up, a multi-million-dollar project overseen by Irving B. Haynes & Associates. Its restoration leaves it much the way it was when John and Anne Brown lived here and reared their three children, who included directors of the National Aquarium, Nicholas Brown (1932-) and the National Gallery, J. Carter Brown (1934-2002).
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture