John Nicholas Brown (1900-1979) was born on February 21, 1900 in New York City as the only child of John Nicholas Brown (1861-1900) and Natalie Bayard Dresser Brown (1869-1950). When John Nicholas Brown was just two months old, his father contracted Typhoid fever and died suddenly on May 1, 1900. The tragic deaths of his father and later, his uncle, Harold Brown, left John Nicholas to become the sole heir to the family fortune at the tender age of three months and dubbed by the public as once "the richest baby in America."
As a result of such an immense estate, Natalie Bayard Brown then took as her life's work the management of her son's inheritance. As John progressed through his childhood under the great care of his mother and relatives, he was eventually sent John to St. George's School in Newport. St. George's school was a small, independent institution, with which its spiritual and intellectual values were well inculcated in John. By age 18, he was determined to become the master of his fate. Even though assured by Brown's President Faunce that his college career at Brown University would be made as easy as possible, John was determined to go to Harvard instead.
Indeed, Harvard was a formative experience for John Nicholas Brown. There he quickly formed deep friendships that would last for the rest of his life. He also found important scholarly mentors in various professors. At Harvard, John Brown was able to give free reign to his interests in history, literature and art. He developed a unique concentration in the History and Literature of Classical Cultures, and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1922.
John's interests in the fine arts began at an early age. As a boy, he was introduced to the Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram, who became young John's principal inspiration of his life-long interest in architecture. At St. George's School, John's favorite subject was Sacred Studies, a theme that would recur in his later years through his focus on medieval church architecture. Even before he finished his studies at Harvard, he had conceived the notion of donating a chapel to St. George's School. With John’s active participation in construction planning, the chapel was finally consecrated on April 28, 1928.
The experience with the St. George's chapel ignited John's lifelong interest in architecture. No sooner had the chapel been consecrated than he embarked on a new architectural project- the rehabilitation of the old Brick Market house in Newport. Later he expanded his architectural interests into historic preservation, including the rescue of the nineteenth century Arcade building in Providence and the late eighteenth century Slater Mill structure in Pawtucket.
Travel was an integral part of the artistic process for John Brown. His early travels with his mother had been largely confined to the United States. Once John was in college, however, Natalie Brown grew more adventurous and she and John spent the summer of 1919 touring Japan. Immediately after John's graduation from Harvard, the two embarked for a yearlong tour of Europe and the Mediterranean. During the 1920s, John Nicholas’ travel interests focused on medieval cathedrals and other religious sites. He took numerous photographs and detailed notes in order to capture inspiration for his architectural projects.
After a frustrated attempt to take on a role in the family office, where the imposing figure of Frank Matteson still held sway, John Nicholas Brown returned to Harvard in the fall of 1926 to pursue graduate study focusing in historic architecture, Christian iconography and the history of painting. During these years, he established the Medieval Academy of America and began to collect Old Master drawings along with paintings.
The most profound change in John's life occurred when he met Anne Seddon Kinsolving, a reporter for The Baltimore News, at Keith Kane's wedding in 1930. They married in October of that year, and set off for a yearlong honeymoon in Europe. On their return, John began to engage seriously the family business enterprise. With Anne, John embraced new interests like the cello and sailing and turned ever more inexorably toward modern art.
The Great Depression found John establishing himself in public service and family life. In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed him to head the Rhode Island division of the Public Works Administration (PWA). In 1935, this agency was succeeded by the Rhode Island State Planning Board, of which John was appointed Chair. During World War II, John was Chair of the Newport Council of Defense. He was also elected to the Newport Representative Council and chaired the War Fund Campaign for the Rhode Island Red Cross in 1944 and 1945. In the interim, Anne gave birth to their three children: Nicholas in 1932, John Carter in 1934 and Angela Bayard in 1938.
Early in 1945, John was appointed special cultural advisor to General Eisenhower, attached to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission, which worked to identify and restore public artworks looted by the Nazis. After months of tiring work and negotiation, John returned home in frustration and was shortly tapped to Chair the committee charged with making a pitch for Rhode Island as the headquarters site for the newly formed United Nations Organization. In November 1946, he was appointed by President Truman as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air. He held this post for two and a half years before resigning in March 1949 to return to Rhode Island. In the same year, John started to become deeply involved in the racing activities of the Bolero and later, the New York Yacht Club.
In 1954, John was appointed Chair of the Harvard University Committee for the Visual Arts to examine the role of fine arts in the university curriculum. In 1957, he was appointed by President Eisenhower to serve on the President's Committee on an American Armed Forces Museum. He was further recruited to join the Smithsonian's Board of Regents and to Chair the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery Commission. In 1975, he was awarded the Joseph Henry medal for his long and distinguished service on the National Armed Forces Museum Advisory Board.
After 1949, however, the bulk of John's energies went into "Rhode Island affairs." His principle preoccupations were the Providence Preservation Society and his turn as Chairman of the Building & Planning Committee at Brown University after 1962. However, his interests in the public life of Rhode Island during these years were diverse, and also included long stints as director or trustee of the Rhode Island Foundation, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and so on.
The last fifteen years of John's remarkable life were characterized by declining health, as chronic heart disease began to take its toll. John Nicholas Brown continued to pursue an active life in spite of his ill health, holding on to his various trusteeships and maintaining a schedule that included generous attention to travel, the fine arts and sailing. Indeed, it was after celebrating with his two sons in Washington, D.C., that he collapsed and died on his last sailing yawl at Annapolis, Maryland, on October 8, 1979.