Robinson Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI

Robinson Hall at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The building in 2016:

Robinson Hall was built in 1878, with funds provided by John Carter Brown. The son of the school’s namesake, Nicholas Brown, Jr., he was an 1816 graduate of Brown and a book collector, and in his will he left the school this plot of land at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, along with money to build a library here. This brick, Gothic Revival building was used as a library for only a few decades, though, before the completion of the much larger John Hay Library across the street. In 1912, the old library building became the home of the Economics Department, and was later named in honor of Ezekiel Robinson, who had served as the school’s president from 1872 to 1889. Today, very little has changed in its appearance, and it remains in use by the Economics Department. Although the building is no longer used as a library as John Carter Brown had intended, his legacy on campus has not been forgotten. His extensive book collection later formed the basis for another campus library, the John Carter Brown Library, which opened in 1904 and still serves as one of the school’s seven libraries.

John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, RI

The John Carter Brown Library on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The library in 2016:

The John Carter Brown Library is one of seven libraries at Brown University, featuring an extensive collection of rare, colonial-era books published in the Americas. Its origins trace back to the private collection of John Carter Brown, who was a member of Providence’s prominent Brown family. His father, Nicholas Brown, Jr., was the donor for whom the school was named, and many other family members played an important role in the founding and development of the school.

After his death in 1874, John Carter Brown left his collection to his son, John Nicholas Brown. He, in turn, left instructions in his will to establish a library with the collection, to be named in memory of his father. Although his will did not stipulate a location, the library trustees chose Brown University, and it opened in 1904, four years after his death.

Like many other early 20th century libraries, the building is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture, and was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the firm that would go on to design Brown’s John Hay Library a few years later. The library’s opening in the spring of 1904 coincided with the completion of a nearby gate, which was donated by John Nicholas Brown’s widow and named for her late husband.

Today, the front facade of the library is unchanged from the first photo, but its holdings have significantly increased over the years. A new addition was completed in 1990, and named the Caspersen Building in honor of the parents of its benefactor, Finn M. W. Caspersen. The library now has over 50,000 books from the 19th century and earlier, along with thousands of rare maps, prints, manuscripts, and other documents.

Providence Athenaeum, Providence, RI

The Providence Athenaeum on Benefit Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The building in 2016:

Today, public libraries can be found in virtually every town in New England as well as throughout the rest of the country, but they were virtually unheard of prior to the second half of the 19th century. Even here in Providence, the first public library did not open until 1878. Before this, many cities had private libraries, which were funded through membership dues. In Providence, two such libraries were the Providence Library Company and the Providence Athenaeum, which merged in 1836 to form the present-day Athenaeum. Two years later, the library opened their current building here on Benefit Street near the corner of College Street, just down the hill from Brown University.

One of the most notable incidents in the history of this building came within ten years after it opened. In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe was courting Sarah Helen Whitman, a Providence poet who, at 45 years old, was six years Poe’s senior. He proposed to her in a Providence cemetery (naturally, for Poe), and she eventually accepted, provided that he sobered up. During their engagement, they frequently visited the Athenaeum together. During one such visit on December 23, 1848, two days before their planned wedding, Whitman received a note saying that Poe had been drinking the night before and that morning. Here in the library, she called off the wedding, and soon after Poe returned to Richmond, never to see Whitman again. He was dead less than a year later in bizarre circumstances, a few days after being found delirious and wandering the streets of Baltimore.

Nearly a century after Poe’s visits, the Athenaeum was frequented by another prominent horror fiction writer, Providence native H.P. Lovecraft. Largely influenced by Poe’s writings, Lovecraft was well aware of the Poe connection to the building, writing in one letter to author Frank Belknap Long:

Providence, which spurn’d Eddie living, now reveres him dead, and treasures every memory connected with him. The hotel where he stopt, the churchyard where he wander’d, the house and garden where he courted his inamorata, the Athenaeum where he us’d to dream and ramble thro’ the corridors—all are still with us, and as by a miracle absolutely unchang’d even to the least detail.

Lovecraft lived here on College Hill, just a short walk from both the John Hay Library and the Athenaeum, and he often visited both. Aside from mentioning it in his letters, he also included it in several of his works, alongside other Providence landmarks.

As for the Athenaeum building itself, it is still in use by the library more than 175 years after it opened. It has seen several additions, though, to house the library’s growing collections. The first came in 1914, and was located at the southeast corner of the building, on the back and to the right when seen from this angle. The second addition, visible on the right side of the 2016 photo, opened in 1979 with an architectural design that, like the 1914 addition, matched the original 1838 design of the building. Today, it is one of the many historic buildings still standing in the College Hill neighborhood, and it forms part of the College Hill Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Providence Public Library, Providence, RI

The Providence Public Library on Washington Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The library in 2016:

The Providence Public Library was established in 1875 and first opened in 1878, in the second floor of the Butler Exchange building at Exchange Plaza. Not until 1900 did the library have its own permanent home, when this building opened at the corner of Washington and Greene Streets. It was designed by the Providence firm of Stone, Carpenter & Willson, and its architecture reflects the Renaissance Revival design that was popular for turn-of-the-century libraries. The style had been pioneered in Boston less than a decade earlier, and would be imitated in other New England cities, including here in Providence and in Springfield. Most of the construction costs were funded by John Nicholas Brown I, who died the same year that the building was completed.

The most significant change to the building’s exterior appearance came in 1954, with the completion of a large wing on the Empire Street side of the library. This addition is only partially visible on the far right side of the photo, but its modern architecture is a sharp contrast t the classical design of the original structure. Otherwise, though, the historic library looks essentially the same as it did 110 years earlier, and it is still used as the main branch of the city’s public library system.

John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI

The John Hay Library at the corner of Prospect and College Streets in Providence, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The library in 2016:

The John Hay Library is one of several libraries at Brown University. The building was designed by the prominent Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, and opened in 1910 as the school’s primary library. It was built in part with funds from Andrew Carnegie, and is named for John Hay, an 1858 graduate of Brown who had served as US Secretary of State from 1898 until his death in 1905.

It remained in use as main library until 1964, when the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library opened just to the left of here, on the other side of College Street. Today, the John Hay Library is used to house the special collections, rare books, and the University Archives. Among its more unusual holdings are several anthropodermic books, which are books bound in human skin. The library also has an extensive collection of letters and other manuscripts from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a Providence native who lived nearby and often visited the library.

Public Library, Worcester, Mass

The Worcester Public Library on Elm Street, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

Prior to the mid-19th century, public libraries were almost unheard of in the United States. However, by the late 1850s many cities were establishing their own libraries, including Worcester in 1859. It began with about 10,000 books, donated from the Worcester Lyceum and the private collection of Dr. John Green, and was originally housed on the third floor of a commercial block at the corner of Main and Foster Streets.

In 1862, the library moved into its first permanent home on Elm Street, the building on the right side of the first photo. In the following decades, though, the library’s collections outgrew this original space, and in 1891 it was expanded to the east with the massive addition on the left side of the photo. This addition was designed by Worcester architect Stephen Earle, with a Romanesque style design that bore no relation to the more Italianate-based style of the original building.

The Worcester Public Library remained here until 1964, when it moved to its current location on Salem Street. The century-old building here on Elm Street, along with its 1891 addition, were then demolished, and the site was redeveloped as a parking garage.