Historic Structures

Building Description John Brown House, Providence Rhode Island

The John Brown House is a large, square, three-story building of brick with four exterior chimneys and a central entrance in accord with colonial tradition. It has a hipped roof with a flat deck, finished with balustrades at both cornice and deck levels. The lower balustrade is composed of rows of turned balusters alternating with plain block panels and ornamented with flame finals. The balustrade above is of Chinese Chippendale design. The third-story windows are characteristically smaller than those of the lower stories, and are set close under the classic cornice. The facade is accented by a slightly projecting central pavilion crowned by its own pediment. A one story porch with sandstone Doric columns protects the entrance and a Palladian window under a brick relieving arch is used for the ornamental window above. Sandstone is also used for all of the window lintels.

A pedimented side entrance (now closed) on the west side opens onto a balustraded terrace which continues to the north into a pergola of Doric columns. The later rear additions harmonize perfectly with the original block and are unseen from the front facade. There is a dormer with broken scroll pediment on the west end east side. These are set back so they are not readily noticeable to disturb the flat roof profile.

The interior of the house is laid in the traditional Georgian plan of central stairhall with two rooms on either side. The grand staircase, rising in two flights in the traditional place at the rear of the hall, has beautifully twisted balusters and a gracefully curved railing finished in a spiral, turned around the twisted newels. They were considered almost essential for fine mansions in the Colonies during the early to mid-eighteenth century, and Newport account books show that Job Townsend and other cabinetmakers were often commissioned to make balusters. The rest of the boldly scaled, correct and richly used architectural detail comes from the pages of Gibbs, Swan, Langley, Salmon and other eighteenth-century architectural books.

A pair of engaged Ionic columns, placed opposite each other on either side of the hall form pedestals for architectural busts designed for the house. Paired doorways with broken scroll pediments above a modillioned and dentiled cornice and a full cornice ornamented with dentiles, modillions and a swag frieze fill the hall. The walls in all the rooms, no longer paneled or wainscoted, have heavily molded base and chair rails. The walls themselves were wallpapered.

The southeast parlor overmantel has double engaged mahogany pilasters supporting a broken pediment with polychrome bust. The mantel itself has a carved cushioned frieze supported by mahogany Ionic columns. Column pedestals, supporting architectural busts like those in the hallway, are used to frame the arched doorway from this room into the northeast parlor. These and the hall busts were ordered from France especially for the house. The busts of Summer and Winter on the entrance gateposts are supposed to have been taken from Versailles during the French Revolution.

The northeast drawing room has semicircular molded arches framing the rectangular windows. The mantel shelf is supported by heavy consoles and has a robust garland frieze. The overmantel is framed by Ionic pilasters which support a broken scrolled pediment with another polychromed bust in the opening.

The southwest chamber mantel has a pediment supported by brackets, and the eared overmantel has seroll ends which rest on the shelf. The frieze is carved with fruit and garland swags.

Eleven of the twelve mantelpieces are original. The two small polychromed busts owned by descendants of the family, one of Milton and one of Athena, were returned, to again become part of the overmantel pediments in the main east drawing rooms. A small squirrel now in the pediment in the southwest parlor is a copy of the original.

Panels from eleven of the wallpapers were saved by family members who lived in the house until 1850 and the Rhode Island Historical Society owns five of them. Light in scale, bright in color, and composed of repeating patterns of classic figures, swags, garlands, urns, rinceau and buds, they were the latest thing from France, thus forming a link between the mid-Georgian character of the architectural detail and the late Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture.

Although not part of the original building, a lavishly ornamented bathroom with ceramic wall murals, decorative tiles, and stained glass contribute to the overall impression of wealth and opulance.

In 1901 Marsden Perry substituted the present front doorway with its leaded glass fanlight for the old Palladian entry and replaced the door, itself a Victorian replacement, with a handsome mahogany eight-paneled door of proper period design. He also installed ornamental plaster ceilings in the east drawing rooms, and made extensive changes in the northwest room, used most recently for the offices of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission. The interiors have undergone extensive paint analysis and the rooms have been done in gray greens, olive greens, gray, gray blues, and buff tans with some baseboards and windowseats stained in dark mahogany red.