Franklin’s Last Home

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Conserving the building at 36 Craven Street was one thing. Deciding what to do with it was something else.

Franklin had other government issues to trouble him, as the gulf widened between Britain and America. He maintained that the problems were caused by the King’s advisers, and in 1772 he leaked letters from the Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson that recommended sterner measures against the colonies. Despite Franklin’s instructions, the letters were published in America, and people sought the identity of this eighteenth-century Deep Throat. When two men embroiled in the controversy fought a duel in Hyde Park, Franklin stepped forward. In January 1774 he endured an abusive session of the Privy Council regarding the letters. Stripped of his position as postmaster for North America and threatened with arrest, Franklin prepared to leave Craven Street the following March. The scientist Joseph Priestley visited on Franklin’s last day in London. He found his friend going through American newspapers to find articles that might help sway English sentiment toward the Americans, but Priestley reported, “He was frequently not able to proceed for the tears literally running down his cheeks.”

Number 36 remained a lodging house until the Second World War. It suffered some bomb damage and afterward served as headquarters of an organization called the British Society for International Understanding. “I always have to tease out what’s fact and what’s lore,” says the house’s director, Márcia Balisciano. “One of the bits of lore, which is completely unsubstantiated, is that it was a front for the CIA.” During the restoration, workers did discover a shriveled piece of a map of NATO tucked away in one of the chimneys.

When I visited in October, the house was at least as busy as it ever had been in Franklin’s day, with workers rushing to prepare for its opening on January 17. The building’s tight confines echoed with the sounds of hammering, drilling, sanding, and vacuuming. Tools, ladders, fixtures, blueprints, and empty coffee cups littered floors and tables. Workers trudged up the narrow, tilting staircase with doors and wall panels to be reinstalled. Out of the chaos Benjamin Franklin’s London residence was slowly re-emerging.

The transformation happened just in time. “There was a very real possibility that the house could have collapsed,” says Balisciano. Its brick front had pulled away from the supporting structure, leaving a gap of six inches at some places. Victorian additions, including a new, raised roof and doorways cut through support beams, had caused the entire building to sag.

The long process of bringing No. 36 back from the near-dead started in 1978, when Mary, Countess of Bessborough, founded the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House. In 1989 the British government gave the organization the freehold ownership of the land beneath the house.

Things began lurching into motion in 1990 when the Pennsylvania-born Lady Bessborough recruited Ann Prescott Keigher to help save the house. Keigher, a native of Buffalo, New York, who was living in London and running her own architectural firm, met Lady Bessborough at a New Year’s Eve party. “After several glasses of champagne I was a member of the council,” Keigher says with a laugh. “That’s how it all started.” She has been working for the house on a volunteer basis ever since.

The task of opening the house to the public proceeded in stages. Phase one, funded primarily with money from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the Getty Foundation, and the William Hewlitt Trust, aimed merely to keep the building standing. Workers re-inforced the bricks of the facade with stainless steel ties. To stop the sagging, they inserted a steel beam in the attic and attached three adjustable vertical steel rods that were connected to each floor. Repairs were made to the roof, and it was re-slated. Phase one cost £814,000, or about $1.3 million.

Phase two was even more expensive. “We will have expended 1.5 million pounds, actually even more than that, between May and when the house opens,” said Balisciano in October. Once again the Heritage Lottery Fund came forward with a pledge of almost a million pounds. Other contributors included the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which saw the electrical pioneer Franklin as a kindred spirit, the U.S. Embassy in London, and an expanding roster of other private contributors.

Phase two completed the interior restoration and the installation of equipment for the Historic Experience tour and the research and science centers. English Heritage, the government’s advisory body on historic buildings, had given the building Grade I status, and that meant the restorers operated within strict guidelines. “If we were restoring this house like you do in America, we’d take this house and make it look brand-new,” says Keigher. Instead, the restorers preserved the building much as it was. Keigher did receive permission to remove a wall on the fourth floor that divided a bedroom, but not for a similar wall on the third floor. The stained glass in the staircase window, a Victorian addition, had to stay. And the upper floors and the staircase will continue to tilt, an effect that required centuries of settling.

The plaster on the ceilings and attic walls is new, but it’s a historically accurate mixture of lime, mortar, and white goat hair. The restoration team studied paint on the original wall panels to determine the somewhat sickly shade of green that covered them when Franklin lived here. When it was necessary to replace floorboards, the restorers used eighteenthcentury wood taken from a building in Bath. “This is really conservation at its finest,” Keigher says.