Success, ambition, and glamour dominate this block of Benefit Street. John Brown became wealthy from his family’s shipping business, which included privateering, the China Trade, and Triangular Trade. John, along with his brothers Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses, financed the voyage of the slave ship Sally in 1764 that proved a disastrous endeavor, both in loss of life (109 of 196 enslaved Africans died before the ship reached Jamaica), and financially (which convinced all the brothers but John to discontinue their involvement in the trade).
John Brown had this luxurious home built for his family in 1786. The family had previously lived in a townhouse across the street from his brother’s home at 50 South Main Street, which still stands today. One of the grandest in the United States, the Power Street mansions played host to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Washington visited in 1790 on his first tour of Rhode Island since becoming president, as he had avoided it while Rhode Island remained a hold-out on the ratification of the Constitution.
The house passed through several Brown descendants until 1901 when it was purchased by Marsden J. Perry, a utilities and transportation magnate. Perry made significant changes to the property in the spirit of colonial revival, filling the house with early American antiques as well as the most complete collection of Shakespeareana in the world. Perry reportedly wanted to acquire a particularly rare folio, and when he lost the bid, he decided to get rid of his whole collection, which became the founding collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library.