April/May 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 2
As Anne Keigher, an architect deeply involved with the London house Benjamin Franklin called home for almost 16 years, shows me around it, she points out a supporting pillar in the basement. “This original pier needed new concrete footing poured beneath it, so we were digging down to shore it up,” she says. “That’s when we discovered the bones.”That was on a damp, gray December day in 1997, at the very beginning of the endeavor to restore the world’s only surviving Franklin residence. Work immediately halted so the London coroner could examine the site. Thorough searching yielded some 1,200 bones, which are still being catalogued. Some of them had been sawed. A skull had holes drilled through it. They had been buried when Franklin was living in London.
Does this mean we must add “serial killer” to Benjamin Franklin’s endless résumé?
No. As it turned out, William Hewson, the son-in-law of Franklin’s landlady, had operated a small anatomy school in this same Craven Street building during the 1770s, a time when doctors often relied on shady “resurrection men” for fresh corpses to dissect. After finishing with his specimens, Hewson disposed of them in the back garden. A later expansion of the house turned that garden into basement space. (And the much disturbed dead eventually got their revenge: Hewson died in 1774 from septicemia—blood poisoning—acquired while performing a dissection.)
The University of London’s Institute of Archaeology studied the bones and returned them to 36 Craven Street, which opened to the public as a museum in January, just in time for Franklin’s 300th birthday. The bones are on exhibit to help tell visitors about Hewson and his medical work here. The building’s top floor houses a small research center; on the floor below, children can explore topics close to Franklin’s heart in a science center. On the “Historic Experience” tour an actor playing Polly Hewson, the doctor’s wife, introduces visitors to eighteenth-century London, with help from twenty-first-century audiovisual technology.
From the outside the building looks much as it did in Franklin’s day. It’s one of several tall, thin, and nondescript row houses that line narrow Craven Street, their red bricks darkened by centuries of dust and grime. Standing on the sidewalk and squinting enough to blur out the tall modern buildings rearing up behind the eighteenth-century structures, I can almost imagine I’m back in Franklin’s London, that a coach might pass by carrying William Pitt the Elder to consult Franklin about last-ditch efforts to reconcile Britain and her colonies.
Franklin moved into his lodgings at 36 Craven Street in August 1757, along with his illegitimate son, William, and their two slaves, King and Peter. Franklin’s wife, Deborah, whom he had married in 1730, refused to cross the Atlantic and stayed behind in Philadelphia.
The Pennsylvania Assembly had sent Franklin to London to negotiate with the Pennsylvania Proprietors, members of the Penn family who owned the colony. His main mission was to gain permission for the assembly to tax the proprietors’ lands to help defray expenses of the French and Indian War.
“I lodge in Craven Street near Charing Cross, Westminster; We have four Rooms furnished, and every thing about it is pretty genteel.” Franklin wrote to his wife. His building was one of several Georgian terraces the Craven family had built here around 1730. Many of the buildings found use as lodging houses that offered tenants a convenient location in the heart of London, just steps away from the Strand. “I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross,” said Franklin’s contemporary Samuel Johnson.
Franklin’s landlady, the widowed Margaret Stevenson, and her daughter, Polly, became Franklin’s surrogate family. (Polly would later move to Philadelphia to be near him.) He lived here until 1762, then returned to Philadelphia and the whirlwind of Pennsylvania politics. Two years later the assembly sent him back to England to negotiate an end to proprietary rule and he resumed his comfortable life in Craven Street. Perhaps it was too comfortable. In 1767 the painter Charles Willson Peale, a fellow Philadelphian, dropped by and discovered Franklin kissing a young woman perched on his knee, a scene Peale sketched in his diary.
Franklin found other ways to pass his time at Craven Street. He invented the instrument he called his glass armonica, a series of glass cylinders mounted on a rotating rod that the performer played by holding wet fingers to the rims of the spinning glasses. He pioneered the use of bifocal lenses and developed a damper so his fireplace would burn more efficiently. He also took “air baths”—sitting naked in front of the open windows of his second-floor parlor.
Polly married William Hewson in 1770, and when Margaret visited relatives that September, the Hewsons watched over her illustrious lodger. During Margaret’s absence Franklin wrote comic newspapers he called the Craven Street Gazette . “We hear that from the Time of her Majesty’s leaving Craven Street House to this Day, no Care is taken to file the Newspapers; but they lie about in every Room, in every Window, and on every Chair, just where the Doctor lays them when he reads them,” one entry read. “It is impossible Government can long go on in such Hands.”
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.
The house does have twenty-first-century nerves and sinews. Modern cables and wires are hidden away beneath floorboards and behind wall panels. Tucked away on the roof is a modern air-cooling system that circulates air through new steel liners in the fireplace chimneys. The house also has the lights, exit signs, and other equipment required to meet modern safety standards.
Conserving the building was one thing. What to do with it was something else. “We had a debate about whether you present it as a museum or whether you present it as a live experience,” says Sir Bob Reid, who became the chairman of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House in 1997 at the urging of his wife, Lady Jane Reid, who herself has become one of Britain’s leading Franklin experts. The live-experience concept “took time for everybody to accept,” Sir Bob says. “One or two of the older members were not certain about it.”
“We weren’t going to be collection driven,” says Balisciano. “We didn’t have a lot of stuff.” Instead, the foundation took an approach that Balisciano calls “museum as theater”—the tours, the science programs, and the rest.
When Balisciano joined the house in 1999, she thought it would be ready in about two years. But target dates slipped as design work and fundraising proved difficult. “I eventually had to give up my own will,” she says. “Maybe Benjamin Franklin decided that opening in January 2006 for his 300th birthday would be a much more fitting date than some arbitrary day in 2002 or 2003. So it’s 2006.” That sounds like Franklin. As he noted in his Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1753, “Haste makes waste.”