Columns

Sweren ’15: For sale: the Bannister House

By
Opinions Editor
Friday, February 27, 2015

It’s hard to know a first for anything. When he started loving poetry; when he first saw a boat; when he started scribbling on surfaces; or when, for the first time, he stayed up late at night so that those walking beneath his room could see the light from his tallow candle through the attic chamber window above. After apprenticing in New York then returning to Boston, nights may have provided the only respite to paint and escape the photography studio fumes.

Within a mile’s radius of College Hill stands the house of a potential co-conspirator in the Gaspée Affair — Daniel Pearce, who lived on Transit Street. There is the house of one of the North’s biggest slave traders — John Brown, who lived on Power Street. There are two elite schools — Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — perched on a 17th century hill. And there is a small brick building, nicely tucked away — owner, forgotten; meaning, unknown.

We’re talking about Edward Mitchell Bannister, preeminent painter of the 19th century, who, in his forties, won the first-prize bronze medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition for his painting “Under the Oaks” — since lost — only to have his medal temporarily revoked upon the judges’ discovery of the color of his skin: black. We’re talking about Edward Mitchell Bannister, co-founder of the Providence Art Club and one of the original board members of RISD, who moved to Providence in October 1869 and gained success despite “the severest struggles which, while severe enough for white men, have been enhanced tenfold in my case,” to use his own words. We’re talking about Edward Mitchell Bannister, who lived at 93 Benevolent St. from 1884-1898 and whose house is now owned by Brown University.

His home was listed on the Providence Preservation Society’s “Ten Most Endangered Properties” list in 2001 and is a contributing property to the College Hill Historic District — a national landmark. Brown acquired the Bannister House in 1989, and the house has historical significance that Brown’s treatment of it has trivialized. The University has since listed the house for sale, though the property is “on hold.”

The house on Benevolent Street was built circa 1854. It was an unremarkable, two and a half story “wooden cottage,” framed with timber, slatted on the outside and bricked on the interior. It was the year that, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Anthony Burns — a runaway slave in the same city as Bannister — was told that his “master had a right to (him).” He was put on a boat and shipped back to the South.

Edward Bannister was never a slave. He was born a free man circa 1828 along the St. Croix River in New Brunswick, Canada. In 1854, Bannister was living in Boston and working on his first commissioned painting, financed by Dr. J.V. DeGrasse, the first black doctor admitted into the Massachusetts Medical Society. No one knows what this Bannister painting looked liked. These were the early, untrained years of his life. But its title, “The Ship Outward Bound,” gives us an idea.

Boston was a city that, a year later, would outlaw segregated schooling. When Burns marched, with his “bracelets … of iron and steel, that wore into the bone,” as he later told members of a black church in New York, onto a ship and back into servitude, an estimated 50,000 people assembled and shouted “kidnappers” and “shame” at Burns’ master and those responsible for his capture and return. “The Ship Outward Bound” was likely in response to this affair, and its colors, tones and lines most likely portrayed the event with a unique Bannister flair, merging the beauty of the sea with the sinister undercurrent of the ship it bore.

In the late 1930s, Euchlin Reeves and Louise Herreshoff — great-granddaughter of John Brown and a closet painter herself — bought the house next to Bannister’s former home. Bannister had died many years earlier, in 1901, and a report issued by the North Burial Ground in 1900 lists “Edward Bannister” as owning a plot. His wife, Christiana, distinguished in her own regard, passed away in 1903.

The Reeveses were antique collectors. Their collection comprised unimaginable diversity: a chair that once belonged to George Washington and one of the largest ceramics collections — now at Washington and Lee University — in North America. But their home was too small and couldn’t house all of their rare, antique possessions. They purchased the home next door, formerly owned by the Bannisters, and renovated the structure to suit the best objects from their collection. They veneered the exterior with brick to fireproof the building, likely unaware that the Seril Dodge home, built circa 1790, was the first home in Providence to feature a floating brick wall over a timber-frame. The Dodge House was first leased in 1866 by the Providence Art Club, the institution Bannister helped to found and which he himself surely frequented.

In order to craft their “little museum,” the Reeveses obliterated any trace of Edward Mitchell Bannister, Christiana Carteaux Bannister and those unnoticeable details that Edward and his wife may have fancied for any number of the precious years that the Bannisters called this house home. In short, the great-granddaughter of John Brown, a slave trader, destroyed the home of Edward Bannister — a black teacher, painter, activist, barber, husband, brother, sailor and poet — to house the Reeveses’ antiques.

The property is part of the University’s “Brown to Brown” program, where homes are advertised and sold to affiliated faculty members so that they may renovate the structures and live in them. If the owners choose to move, they can only sell the houses back to Brown.

Overall, the program has proved successful. It has breathed life into otherwise doomed structures, incorporated them into the Brown community and assured Brown’s involvement in the houses’ longevity. With at least one glaring exception: the Bannister House.

There’s a lot to say about Bannister’s former home. How its proximity to the water surely allowed Bannister — a man who worked on boats as a child and later bought a sloop yacht named the Fanchon so that he could sail out to sketch New England’s vistas or frequent the waterfront at India Point — to sit and paint the shipyards and boats, as a Newport Historical Society photo of a man believed to be Bannister shows. Or how the John Brown House and Nightingale-Brown House fall between his home and his studio at 2 College St. — now RISD’s College Building.

Walks on College Hill are seldom direct in this scenic city. Perhaps Bannister chose to walk by the white-occupied Brown family mansions in a display of defiance. Perhaps he chose to side-skirt the houses altogether and take one of the many other routes so as to avoid feelings of frustration and pain. Or perhaps, for those fourteen years he lived on Benevolent Street, he chose to travel to and from his studio by means of the segregated public transport: horse-drawn carriage and, later, electric trolley.

Regardless of his mode of transport, Bannister likely faced jeers and slurs from a hostile white community as he made his way to and from his studio and the “slums” of Fox Point. As the book on Bannister issued by the Whitney Museum notes, there were few civil rights laws in New England in the years following the Civil War.

Here’s what Brown’s website says: “This house could be ideal for a single person or couple who want minimal yard work.” And I’m left to wonder if Bannister shared these thoughts.

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, recently wrote about the history of Thomas Jefferson’s most famous residency in the New York Times. He outlined Monticello’s height, its decline and its fortuitous revival. He wrote, “Monticello’s uncertain fate after Jefferson’s death illustrates some of the dangers of leaving a national treasure to the vagaries of the private real estate marketplace.” Yet it seems Brown is flirting with this exact danger.

Neil Downing wrote an article for the Providence Journal in 2009 titled “Black contributions kept alive.” Downing describes the Bannister House as “a decrepit, boarded-up brick building, owned by Brown University — and used by Brown to store refrigerators.” The boards and refrigerators have now been removed, but it seems little else has changed. In 2015, the house remains untouched and entirely unused. Downing wrote that Ray Rickman, a black historian and former state representative, was “assured by Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons — the first African-American to head an Ivy League university — that the building (would) be preserved.” As an address, it is preserved; the building still stands. As anything more, it is irrelevant; its cultural meaning has been stripped to the ground.

Bannister and his house deserve more from the University, and its neglect and hesitation have contributed to the price tag. Brown has owned 93 Benevolent St. since 1989 — 26 years. Last year alone, Brown spent over $94 million on additions to land, buildings and equipment.

There are inconsistencies in Brown’s preservation history, and there is clear disregard for the merit in protecting the reputation and home of the acclaimed painter Bannister.

Most recently, the University chose not to preserve three historical structures on Manning Walkway — previously a road. Before that, the University chose to protect the Peter Green House by moving it to the corner of Brown and Angell Streets and to temporarily refrain from demolishing the Lucian Sharpe Carriage House — now the Urban Environmental Lab. The latter of these two structures merits prolonged preservation; it was built by Alpheus Morse, the same architect who built Sayles Hall. Yet all of these structures were built after the Bannister House was constructed, and none housed locally famous, nationally famous or culturally profound residents — the UEL housed horses. And then there is the notorious example of the 1950s, when the University razed 51 structures to make room for Wriston Quadrangle. The Providence Preservation Society was founded, in part, as a response to this atrocity.

Preservation is not easy, but it should be a burden. It should not be simple to disrupt the fabric of a city and obliterate the past and the meaning of a community and its use of space.

Bannister lived in a divided city, and that divide remains. Our conception of College Hill and the role of the Bannister House in relation to the greater Providence community is askew. History has been dishonest, and we are complicit in that dishonesty. Bannister’s paintings are beautiful, but their beauty is not quite pure. They are tinged with the harsh reality that his fields are not just fields and his workers not just workers but specters of black subjugation, excellence and hardship, and this recasts the narrative and repaints the tale. “All I would do I cannot … simply for the want of proper training,” Bannister once said. Yet for society, artists and activists, Bannister stood for so much more.

And now we possess the charge. His house, if navigated justly, can once again inspire. His house should function within the Brown community, and it is a property we should be proud of, not one that we should try to pawn off to the lowest bidder. Brown is privileged to call Providence home, and we are privileged that Bannister joined us.

Rev. William Simmons, an ex-slave and the president of Simmons College of Kentucky, sketched a compendium of successful black Americans. Of Bannister, he wrote: “With such ambition and with so laudable a purpose, may it not be hoped that he will be sustained in his aims and purposes.”

As Brown expands and moves forward, we can’t escape our origins. And, unless we incorporate and recognize them, we are haphazardly disregarding the merits of research, history and knowledge. Somewhere there’s a Brown where Edward Bannister’s legacy lives on. Where a fund for artists allows sculptors, musicians, painters and poets to live in and interact with the centuries of national and state drama. A Brown where the corner of Brook and Benevolent functions much like the corner of Brown and Angell, where the Brown/RISD Hillel House now stands, and where, over 350 years ago, a muddy lane ran down the hill, past the current Providence Art Club, past the pot stills and pig squeals of the 1700s and into The Cove and clam beds that Roger Williams and Thomas Angell once rowed. Somewhere there’s a Brown where we make bold, historically conscious decisions and where 93 Benevolent St. is known not by address but by name: the Edward Bannister House.

 

Evan Sweren ’15 is a Herald opinions editor.

  • 100%

    this is greatttt. love this.

  • Birdie

    Beautiful piece. Has Brown made or executed any plans for its restoration or transformation over the past 26 years? It seems much too long to sit in disrepair.

  • ’16

    This is a wonderful piece, thank you for writing this.