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Built “for the public Worship of Almighty GOD; and also for holding Commencement in,” as a plaque in the stair tower announces, this imposing edifice outstripped every other Baptist church in the colonies in size and magnificence of detailing. It was an appropriate gesture for the birthplace of the Baptist Church in America, but even more telling of Providence’s accelerating wealth and power. Its construction followed closely on the heels of the arrival of today’s Brown University in Providence; many of the benefactors of the college were also involved here, including both John and Joseph Brown, the latter responsible for the design of the building. While Brown University’s affiliation with the Baptist Church is no longer official, Brown graduates still march down the hill from the campus for their Baccalaureate and back up for Commencement, in what is undoubtedly one of the country’s most elaborate college- graduation marathons. But unlike the College Edifice, on the then-remote hill, the Baptist Church has always enjoyed a dramatic setting right in the thick of urban activity. The amplitude of space in which it stands was luxurious by eighteenth-century standards, especially in emergent Providence. The eighty-foot square building blends two traditions, the New England meeting house and the Anglican parish church. The boxy configuration drew on the meeting-house tradition, while the tower, steeple, and interior configuration were strongly influenced by the designs of the many district churches erected in London in the 1720s and published by James Gibbs in his Book of Architecture (1728), which Joseph Brown owned. The design of the steeple was lifted directly from Plate 30 of that book, one of the two alternative designs for that at St Martin-in-the-Fields (1726), Trafalgar Square. The inside, open daily during the week, is well worth the visit. What you see is an evolved interior: the overall spatial configuration is as first built, but the pew configuration and the presence of an organ date from 1834. The fine crystal chandelier, undoubtedly Waterford but unfortunately not documented, was a gift to celebrate the wedding of Hope Brown to Thomas Poynton Ives. Since the 1920s, restorations of the interior have brought it closer to its original appearance, including the original pale grey-green trim color so popular here in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. As with the College Edifice, the restorations here benefited from the financial support of the Rockefellers.

– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture

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© 2024 Guide to Providence Architecture. All rights reserved. Design by J. Hogue at Highchair designhaus, with development & support by Kay Belardinelli.