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Warren Baptist Church

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1844, Russell Warren. c. 1865(?), 1913–early 1922. Main and Miller sts.

Again Russell Warren, this time Gothic influenced rather than Greek Revival and Italianate (see also the Dow-Starr House, below). This is the third church building on this site. The first (1764) was burned by the British in 1778; its replacement (1784) was demolished for the present building. As the sign outside and a plaque inside also indicate, it is here that the predecessor college for Brown University began.

The plain random rubble walls are beautifully crafted. The corners of the building and its openings are handled handsomely by a rustic quoining which barely puckers the edges of the broad wall surfaces. The church makes a reductive allusion to Gothic, which is limited to pointed arches and once, importantly, a crenellated cresting to the tower, a full eight feet in height, which projected above walls now somewhat reduced in height by the removal of the crenellation and too mildly capped by a simple pyramidal roof. It is shape and the craft of building, not detail, that creates the exterior impact here, plus the great breadth of the building—70 feet to a length of 84 feet. Such squarish proportions are rather more typical of the old meeting house tradition than the elongation generally favored in full-blown Gothic Revival.

The interior has been extensively remodeled, possibly twice. An old photograph in the church shows what stylistically appears to be a c. 1865 renovation of Warren's original interior. Hard to fathom, the photographic image seems to make little allusion to Gothic. Its flat ceiling, which is known to have been of sheet metal, appears to have been divided into shallow panels, each elaborately embellished. A broad decorative cornice intervenes between this and the all-over stenciled patterning of the walls. Two elements are especially remarkable, one of which remains. This is among the largest extant mid-Victorian gaslighted chandeliers in the state, now electrified, with a pyramid of globes in cut and frosted glass which could barely be described as Gothic, together with simple wall sconces of the same date. Most remarkable in the photograph, however, is a Gothic perspective effect enclosed within a huge pointed arch which originally decorated the flat wall behind a centered pulpit. This was surely Warren's design, and its loss is a pity because few such perspective effects have survived from nineteenth-century churches, and few as ingenious and decorative as what was once here. All that surely now remains from Warren's original interior are the box pews and the paning of the side windows, where large diamonds of stained glass in intense red and blue occur in fields of clear glass.

The radical change in the interior occurred from 1914 onward, possibly extending into the early 1920s. Ivory paint then replaced all wall stenciling; a new, slightly gabled and paneled ceiling on bracketed beams was inserted five to six feet below the level of the old metal ceiling (the latter perhaps still entombed above it); and finally, a chancel eliminated the front wall of the sanctuary with Warren's perspective. A broad, three-part late Tiffany window on the themes of baptism and the Pentecost, which closes the chancel, makes the new climax for the space. Max Muller, who was painting murals for the Masons a few blocks away at this time (see entry for the Masonic Temple, above), is responsible for the panels on either side of the baptism window depicting the Christian symbolism of the grape; he extended the theme in stenciled bands along the arching of the nave. A church member, James Vance Cole (to whom the Tiffany window is dedicated), supposedly had a considerable role in conceiving this design as an amateur while contributing substantially to pay for its execution. So the present aspect of the interior is best described as late Arts and Crafts medievalism, both for its design and for the role of the nonprofessional “lover of the arts” whose taste apparently substantially conditioned it.

Warren Baptist Church is significant, too, as the site of the founding of Brown University. When the Reverend James Manning was called from Princeton to Warren in 1764 to take over the congregation and its new church building, he did so with the proviso that he could open a school for the training of Baptist ministers because all existing colonial colleges at the time provided for training only in the Congregational and Episcopalian ministries. Hence he founded Rhode Island College behind the first church building on this site, roughly where the parish house now stands. The college spent its first four years here and held its first commencement in that church. Thereafter both the college and the Reverend Manning (as its president) were lured to Providence by the economic and cultural advantages of the larger city. Not until the 175th anniversary of its founding in 1939 did the university formally present this place of its founding a bronze plaque (to the right of the chancel) in “deep appreciation of [the church's] generous hospitality in the days of the [university's] youth.” (The congregation, understandably miffed by the college's departure, may not have cared to accept the university's thanks any earlier.) The college soon changed its name from Rhode Island College to Brown University in gratitude to one of its principal early benefactors.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Warren Baptist Church", [Warren, 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, 463-464.

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