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Joseph Brown House

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1774, Joseph Brown. 50 South Main St.
  • Joseph Brown House (Richard W. Longstreth)

This is the best—and best preserved—of several ample, stylish houses built in Providence on the eve of the Revolution. It is also one of the earliest extant self-designed architects' houses in America and, as such, probably goes out of its way to be a bit unusual, albeit, as betokens an amateur architect, in a conservative manner. Brown, a gentleman architect in the eighteenth-century tradition, was one of the four Brown brothers—Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses—who dominated the mercantile and maritime business of colonial Providence. For the design of his house, he withdrew to the early eighteenth century and the baroque of Sir Christopher Wren to find the exceptional feature of his house: its Dutch-inspired ogeecurved gable roof. Wren and his followers used this form in public buildings, but almost not at all for residences. Still, Brown could have located one example of the feature in a plate for a house in Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus (1717) or in Plate P of William Salmon's Palladio Londinensis (1748), for the design of a tiny garden structure. The novelty of the form makes it a local icon of the colonial. It particularly appealed to colonial revivalists, always on the lookout for unusual (or, as they would have put it, “picturesque”) colonial detail, and was copied in the late nineteenth century (see PR55.4). Its exceptional quality also had earlier admirers, one of whom, Stephen Smith, in the early nineteenth century built a notable version adapted to country living ( LI20).

The door was originally centered on the second story and reached from either direction by symmetrical flights of stairs. This entrance was moved to street level in the late eighteenth century, when, shortly after Joseph Brown's death, the house became home to the Providence Bank, founded in 1791 by Joseph's brothers John and Moses. The sort of trellised parapeting of which John Holden Greene was so fond adorns the summit of the ogee gable. The interior has been mostly rebuilt, save for its principal flight of stairs (now between floors two and three) with its twisted banisters, ram's-horn curl at the newel post, and another ram's horn curled vertically as the termination for the responding rail against the wall—a variant of what Joseph produced a few years later in a more splendid manner for his brother John. The bank moved to the financial district in the 1920s, but Brown family descendants still occupy the building for personal business use.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Joseph Brown House", [Providence, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 64-64.

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