John Nicholas Brown Gate, Providence, RI

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


The gate in 2016:

This gate on the south side of the College Green at Brown University is named in honor of John Nicholas Brown I, a member of the prominent Brown family. Not surprisingly, this family played a major role in the establishment and growth of the school, which had been originally founded as Rhode Island College. Not to be confused with the current institution of the same name, this school became Brown University in 1804, in recognition of benefactor Nicholas Brown.

Nicholas’s descendants included his son, John Carter Brown, a book collector who amassed a considerable library of rare history books. After his death in 1874, his son, John Nicholas Brown, inherited the collection, and it later formed the basis of the John Carter Brown Library, located just inside the gate and to the right. The library opened in 1904, four years after John Nicholas Brown’s death.

The library’s opening coincided with the completion of this gate. While the library bore the name of his father, the gate was named for John Nicholas Brown himself, and was a gift of his widow. Their only son, John Nicholas Brown II, who had been just three months old when his father died, participated in the cornerstone laying in December 1903, and the gate opened for the first time five months later. Today, very little has changed in this view; the gate is still there, and the buildings in the background, although hidden by trees, are also still standing.

John Brown House, Providence, RI

The home of John Brown on Power Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The house in 2016:

Not to be confused with the more famous John Brown who led the raid on Harpers Ferry, this house was the home of Rhode Island merchant John Brown. Although they shared a name, these two New Englanders could not have been more different; while one was executed after an attempt to violently overthrow slavery, the other, who lived here, built his fortune from enslaving people.

Rhode Island’s John Brown was born in Providence in 1736, and had a profitable career as a merchant, including with the slave trade. Slavery was not illegal in New England during the colonial era, and although it was not nearly as widespread as in the south, many New England merchants nonetheless became wealthy through the slave trade. Brown was also involved in trade with China, and during the American Revolution he invested in privateers that raided British shipping.

Even before the Revolution, though, Brown showed an interest in the patriot cause. In 1772, he was one of the leaders of the Gaspee Affair, an early conflict between the colonists and British authorities. The HMS Gaspee was a British schooner that had been patrolling Narragansett Bay in an effort to stop the widespread smuggling that was occurring in the colony. While pursuing a smuggler, the Gaspee ran aground in nearby Warwick, prompting Brown and a group of other men to board the vessel and burn it. Although it occurred nearly three years before the Revolution actually started, it was an early sign of the growing tension in the colonies.

Following the war, Brown built this Georgian-style mansion on College Hill, near the campus of Rhode Island College. Brown was involved in the early years of the school’s history, and served as its treasurer for several decades. Other members of the Brown family were also highly influential, and in 1804 the school was renamed in honor of John Brown’s nephew, Nicholas Brown, Jr.  John Brown’s house was among the first of many elegant mansions that would soon appear in the College Hill neighborhood, and the area later became the city’s premier residential neighborhood.

The house was designed by Brown’s brother, Joseph, who had also designed Providence’s historic First Baptist Church building, and it was completed in 1788. During the time that Brown lived here, he was the subject of controversy over his slave trade practices. Some members of his family, such as his brother Moses, were abolitionists who opposed his occupation, but he also soon ran afoul of new slave trade laws, which forbade outfitting American ships to be used in the slave trade. Brown was the first to be tried under this new law, and in 1797 he was found guilty and forced to forfeit his ship. This conviction notwithstanding, Brown was elected to the US House of Representatives the following year, and served one term from 1799 to 1801.

After Brown’s death in 1803, the house remained in his family for nearly a century. By the time the first photo was taken, it was owned by Marsden J. Perry, a prominent bank and railroad executive who purchased it in 1901. He made some modifications to the house, but overall it retained its original appearance, both on the interior and exterior. Perry died in 1935, and it was sold to John Nicholas Brown, the great-grandson of Nicholas Brown, the college namesake. He aimed to preserve the historic house, and in 1942 he donated it to the Rhode Island Historical Society, who has owned it ever since. Today, with the exception of the ivy on the walls, essentially nothing has changed about this scene, and the home is now open to the public as a museum.

Providence River, Providence, RI

Looking upstream on the Providence River, with downtown Providence in the background, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The river in 2016:

This view is just downstream of the one in the previous post, and shows some of the same features, including the 1896 Banigan Building and the Crawford Street Bridge. At the time, the bridge was the head of navigation for the Providence River, so the first photo shows several steamboats docked here. These boats were a common sight at the turn of the 20th century, providing excursion trips to vacation destinations such as Newport, Block Island, and other destinations in Narragansett Bay, Long Island, and beyond.

Two of the three steamers in the first photo are identifiable. The one on the right is the Warwick, which had been built in 1873 and was in service for nearly 50 years until 1920. En route to Newport in January, the old boat sprung a leak, and later sank at its dock in Newport. Likewise, the What Cheer on the far left of the first photo also fell victim to old age around the same time. Built in New Jersey in 1867, the What Cheer operated in Narragansett Bay for many years before being sold to a New York company. Two years later, the old sidewheel steamer sank at the pier at Glen Island, and was deemed to be beyond repair.

Today, very little is left from the first photo. The only readily identifiable building in both photos is the Banigan Building, although the Customshouse, seen just to the left of it in the 2016 scene, would have also been standing in the first photo. Otherwise, not much remains. The industrial buildings to the left are gone, including the one with the lettering that reads “Phenix and US Club Ginger Ale.” There are no longer any coastal steamers on the river, although, as mentioned in the previous post, the river itself has seen great improvement. In the first photo, most of it in the distance was hidden under the Crawford Street Bridge, which was probably just as well at the time, considering how polluted it was with sewage and industrial waste. Today, the nearly quarter-mile wide bridge is gone, the river is cleaner, and it is now an integral part of downtown Providence’s cityscape.

Crawford Street Bridge, Providence, RI

Looking across the Providence River toward downtown Providence, with the Crawford Street Bridge in the foreground, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

This is probably one of the rare instances when the “now” photo of a city actually looks better than the “then” photo. The first shows a growing city with a mix of new and old buildings, with a skyline that is marred by overhead wires in the foreground. The Providence River was little more than an open sewer, carrying human waste as well as industrial pollution from factories further upstream. By the early 20th century, the river was largely covered by the Crawford Street Bridge, whose southern end is visible in this photo. It eventually earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s widest bridge, extending upstream for about 1,150 feet, or nearly a quarter mile. This bridge largely hid the river from view in downtown Providence, which was probably all well and good considering that the smell of sewage in the river reportedly caused some people – perhaps Victorian women in tightly-laced corsets – to faint from it.

Most of the buildings in the first photo date to the mid-19th century, but perhaps the newest at the time was the Banigan Building, the tall building on the right side of the photo. It was built in 1896 as the city’s first skyscraper, and was owned by and named for businessman Joseph Banigan. Born to a poor family in Ireland in 1839, Banigan and his family came to the United States in the 1840s during the Potato Famine. Here, he became the archetypical rags-to-riches 19th century industrialist, eventually owning a successful rubber company along with other business interests, including this building.

The Banigan Building is still standing in the present-day scene, and it is joined by several other historic buildings. Just to the left of it is the old Customshouse, which was completed in 1857. It was obviously there when the first photo was taken, but was hidden by other buildings at the time. Two taller historic skyscrapers stand just beyond the Customshouse. Immediately behind it is the Turk’s Head Building, which was the tallest skyscraper in the city when completed in 1913, and to the left is the Bank of America Building. This Art Deco skyscraper was completed in 1928, and at 428 feet high it has been the tallest building in Rhode Island ever since.

Aside from the skyline, the most significant change to this scene has been the Providence River itself. The massive Crawford Street Bridge, its world record notwithstanding, was demolished in the late 1980s, reintroducing the city to the long-hidden river as part of an urban revitalization project. Today, the river is spanned by a series of smaller, more ornate bridges. The river itself is much cleaner than it was a century ago, and now offers gondola rides along with being the focal point of Providence’s regular WaterFire events.

Westminster Street, Providence, RI

Looking southwest on Westminster Street from the bridge over the Providence River, in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


The scene in 2016:

One of the main commercial streets in downtown Providence is Westminster Street, which begins here at the College Street Bridge and continues southwest through downtown Providence and toward the Federal Hill neighborhood. When the first photo was taken, this area consisted primarily of low-rise brick commercial buildings, some of which dated as far back as the early 19th century. The oldest was probably the Union Bank Building on the left, which dated back to 1816. Just to the right of it is Merchants Bank Building, completed in 1857, and on the other side of Westminster Street is part of the large Washington Building, which was built in 1843. Also partially visible in this scene is the 1857 Customhouse, whose dome can be seen in the distance on the far left.

Today, this streetscape has completely changed. Only the Merchants Bank Building remains, now seeming oddly out of place. It has actually gained an additional floor in the intervening years, but despite this it is still completely dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, being literally overshadowed by its neighbor to the left. The Union Bank Building is long gone, as is the Washington Building, which died a slow death in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was partially demolished around 1889 to build a Romanesque building for the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company. Both this new structure and the remainders of the old one were demolished by 1919, when a new, much larger building was completed for the company on the same site. This building is still standing, dominating the right side of the 2016 photo, but it is now owned by the Rhode Island School of Design as part of their campus. The only other survivor from the first photo is the Customhouse building. It is hidden behind modern buildings, but is still standing on Weybosset Street and is in use as a courthouse.

Rhode Island Normal School, Providence, RI

The Rhode Island Normal School, seen from Francis Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

The building in the first photo was once the home of the Rhode Island Normal School, a teacher preparatory college that has since become Rhode Island College. The school was established in 1854, and was housed in several different buildings in the city until 1898, when the building in the first photo opened. Here, it enjoyed a prominent location just south of the Rhode Island State House, with a large lawn on the Francis Street side of the building.

During its time here, the school steadily grew. In 1920, it became the Rhode Island College of Education, offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees for the first time. By the 1950s, though, there were talks of merging the school into the University of Rhode Island. However, the school remained independent, and in 1958 they moved to a new campus in the outskirts of the city. A year later, with the school expanding beyond just education degrees, the name was changed to simply Rhode Island College.

After the college moved to its current campus, the old 1898 building remained here in downtown Providence for many more years. It was finally demolished in the late 1990s to build Providence Place, the large shopping mall that stands on the site today. I don’t known whether it was deliberate or not, but the Nordstrom section of the building appears to pay homage to the design of the old Normal School, with its yellow brick exterior and the similar-looking cornice with dentils at the top of the building.