Former 129 Angell St. owner mistrusted University

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Last month, the Corporation announced that the University will make room for the Mind Brain Behavior building by moving or demolishing the house located at 129 Angell St. – a house that its former owner, Helen Pierpont, never wanted Brown to have in the first place.

Pierpont, a Providence native born in 1892, grew up in a house on George Street that was eventually destroyed in the University’s efforts to remodel the campus and build Wriston Quadrangle. Years later, Pierpont wrote in her will that she did not want the University to gain ownership of her property at 129 Angell St.

The house at 129 Angell St. was built in the mid-19th century, according to a University report – and as Brown expanded, the property gradually became surrounded by campus buildings. When Pierpont died in 1980, she left the house to her close friend and neighbor Margaret Howe.

Howe had lived next door at 127 Angell St. in a first-floor apartment she rented from Brown for several years, according to Gail Medbury, director of University auxiliary housing.

Pierpont’s generosity was not without strings. “I request that Margaret Howe not sell my real estate to Brown University,” she wrote in her will.

But Brown did get the house. Howe was elderly and needed money to move to a house that had only one story, according to her niece, Marcia Sewall ’57. Howe had taught at the Wheeler School for many years and did not have much savings. Within a month of receiving the house, she sold it to Brown for $100,000.

“They were good friends and neighbors. I can’t help but think that Mrs. Pierpont would have wanted my aunt to do what was best for her,” Sewall said. “I just feel that. (Pierpont) was a very nice person. I always liked her a lot. They were nice people, all of them,” she said.

After selling the house to Brown, Howe moved to a residence on nearby Medway Street, according to Sewall.

The story of Pierpont’s mistrust of Brown began long before she lived at 129 Angell St. In the early 20th century, the house belonged to Edith Fletcher, Pierpont’s mother, according to her cousin William Fletcher III ’55. Before she moved to Angell Street, Edith had rented a house on George Street from Brown – the house in which Pierpont grew up.

Edith was known locally as the “first lady” of the Players, an amateur theater company on Benefit Street. As she grew older, she lost her sight and eventually fell off the stage at the Players, leading to her confinement to bed.

Edith’s illness could not have come at a worse time for the family. William Fletcher III, who was a Herald staffer when he was a Brown student, said the University wanted to evict her from the George Street house in order to demolish it and build a new quadrangle on its site – today’s Wriston Quad. Blind and bedridden, Edith refused to leave her house. According to William Fletcher III, the University was forced to send firemen into her house to forcibly remove her.

Her brother, William Fletcher Sr., then intervened, although the siblings had been estranged since their parents divorced in their childhood. The divorce had been “quite a scandal” in the 1890s, according to William Fletcher III, forcing the children to side with one parent. William Fletcher Sr. bought Edith the house at 129 Angell St., where she lived until her death. At her death, the house passed to her daughter, Helen Pierpont.

Pierpont lived in the house until her death in 1980, when she left the house to Howe, requesting that the property not be sold to Brown.

“I was kind of surprised that she had done that,” William Fletcher III said. “The whole family was kind of willful.”

Although he did not know for sure, William Fletcher III said he guesses she did so because of what happened to her mother on George Street.

“It just sort of makes sense,” he said. “Logically, why else would she have said such a thing?”

After acquiring the house, the University renovated it in 1984, according to Medbury. It was used as housing for visiting scholars until 2000, when Brown began renting it to undergraduates and grad students. It currently is occupied by four medical students, Medbury said.

The University now plans either to move or to demolish the house to make way for the new Mind Brain Behavior building, the Corporation announced at a meeting last month. According to Medbury, the first choice would be to preserve the historic house and move it, as the University has done with other houses in the area when undertaking new construction.

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