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A Brown Descendant Comes Home

Author Sylvia Brown returns to Benefit Street to build an apartment combining historical charm and modern flair

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One might wonder how a couple living in London for the past 16 years would wind up on College Hill, but for author and global philanthropist Sylvia Brown, she was simply returning to her roots.

Sylvia, a descendent of Nicholas Brown and the author of Grappling with Legacy: Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse, and her husband, Andrew West, purchased their home on Benefit Street and transformed it into a showpiece. Their apartment is on the ground floor of the Nathaniel Bush House and blends historic charm with modern details.

The apartment had been extensively renovated by the previous owner, American glass artist Howard BenTré, but Sylvia and her husband further refined the design by stripping away the late Victorian additions but preserving the original moldings and inlaid wood flooring. “It’s a very interesting conversion and adaption of fantastic old space to modern life,” Sylvia says, describing the home’s unique flair.

Their living room is a shining example of this transitional style. The modern furniture and framed artwork complements rather than contrasting with the historic elements of the home. There’s a contemporary bulb light fixture hanging from the ceiling, Tang Dynasty terra cottas on the sideboard, and an original mirror grounded by a granite shelf.

Sylvia especially credits artist Gage Prentiss for his artistic contribution to the room, which includes the bronze furniture. His resin art piece in the fireplace is particularly special, since the tree carved into its surface is actually the tree from Sylvia and Andrew's garden in England.