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.

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The library in 2016:

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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.

Front Green, Brown University, Providence, RI

The Front Green at Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The Front Green in 2016:

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The Front Green is on the east side of Prospect Street, and is just west of the College Green, with the buildings on the right side dividing these two open spaces. These three buildings are among the oldest on the Brown campus, and were mentioned in the earlier post on the College Green. The two most prominent in this scene are University Hall, in the right center of the scene. Built in 1770, it was the school’s first building after moving to the current Providence campus. Just beyond it, in the center of the photo, is Manning Hall, which was built in 1834 as a library and chapel.

In the past 110 years, essentially nothing has changed in this scene. All of the buildings on the right are still there, as are several campus structures in the distance, which are barely visible on the left side of the photos. In the lower left of the scene is Robinson Hall, which was built in 1878 at the corner of Prospect and Waterman Streets opposite the Front Green. Just to the left of it, on the Front Green itself, is the Carrie Tower. This 95-foot tower is the newest addition to the scene, and was built in 1904 in honor of Caroline Mathilde Brown, who was the granddaughter of Nicholas Brown, the man for whom the college was named.

Van Wickle Gates, Brown University, Providence, RI

The Van Wickle Gates on Prospect Street, opposite College Street at Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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These gates at Brown University were built in 1901, with funds provided by 1876 graduate Augustus Stout Van Wickle, who had died in 1898. Although the two smaller gates on either side are usually open, the central gates are largely symbolic. They are only open three times per year; they open inward at the beginning of the school year and at the beginning of the second semester, and they open outward for the Commencement ceremonies every spring.

Today, aside from the minor addition of a lamppost on the right side, absolutely nothing has changed in this scene. The gates look the same as they did just a few years after they were completed, and the buildings behind it are likewise unchanged. To the left is Manning Hall, which was completed in 1834 and is among the oldest buildings on campus. Even older, though, is University Hall to the right, which built in 1770 and was the schools first building at its current campus.

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.

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The building in 2016:

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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.

Market Square, Providence, RI

Market Square, as seen from across the Providence River in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Market Square in 2016:

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Located at the foot of College Hill on the east side of the Providence River, Market Square was for many years an important commercial and political center of the city. The oldest building in the first photo is Market Houston the right side. Like other colonial buildings such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the Market House functioned as a market on the first floor, but had upper floors that were used for public meetings. It opened in 1775, just in time to witness the start of the American Revolution, which included an anti-British protest where colonists burned tea outside the building. Later in the war, French soldiers were housed in the building in 1781, prior to their participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown later in the year.

Providence was incorporated as a city in 1832, and that same year the newly-formed city government moved into the Market House. The building soon became too small for the needs of the growing city, but it took years before a suitable site for a new City Hall was finally chosen. In 1878, the present City Hall opened on the other side of the river at Exchange Place, and the Market House was put to new use as an office building.

Today, the Market House is the only building left from the first photo. The 19th century commercial blocks on the left were demolished by the first half of the 20th century to build the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium, and the buildings in the center were also subsequently demolished. The entire scene around Market Square is now part of the Rhode Island School of Design, including the Market House itself. The historic building was transferred to the school in 1948, and is now in use for classroom space, although very little has changed in its exterior appearance over the past 150 years.

Westminster Arcade, Providence, RI

The south side of the Westminster Arcade on Weybosset Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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The exterior of this imposing granite Greek Revival building bears no resemblance to its modern descendants, but the Westminster Arcade is believed to have been the nation’s first indoor shopping mall. Completed in 1828, it is just 74 feet wide but spans the entire length of the block between Weybosset and Westminster Streets. On the inside, three floors of shops run the length of the building on either side, with a large central area in between them, topped with skylights. In this sense, the interior is strikingly similar to the modern shopping mall, as seen in this 1958 view from the Historic American Buildings Survey:

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Over the years, the Arcade has been renovated several times, but has retained its commercial role for nearly 200 years. It survived demolition in 1944, and was restored in 1980, a few years after being named a National Historic Landmark. However, by this point downtown commercial centers across the country were struggling with competition from suburban malls and shopping centers, and the Arcade was no exception. It experienced high tenant turnover, and the upper floors were particularly difficult to attract businesses.

The Arcade finally closed in 2008, but another renovation was soon in the works. The building reopened five years later, with a new mixed-use design that featured shops on the first floor and micro apartments on the two upper floors. These apartments, most of which range from 225 to 300 square feet, are particularly useful for students and recent graduates of the many colleges and universities in Providence. Despite the many renovations over the years, though, essentially nothing has changed with the columned facades on either end of the building, and even the interior has, despite changing storefronts into apartments, maintained its original 19th century appearance.