call truce for project
Two different visions but one
goal: Restore Franklin house.
-- If all goes as planned, the only surviving house where Benjamin
Franklin lived will reopen in January on the founder's 300th birthday. But
visitors expecting to see Franklin's restored residence will be in for a
The four-story rowhouse near Trafalgar
Square will be empty. Rather, the residence, where Franklin rented four
rooms when he was an agent for the American colonies, will function more
as a theater in which an actress in 18th-century costume will recount
Franklin's tumultuous years in London. The actress will be accompanied by
recorded voices coming from speakers hidden in the walls.
But if the walls at 36 Craven St. could
really speak, they might recount the modern struggle to raise funds to
conserve the house - actually, to keep it from collapse.
And if the walls could gossip, they
might relate the behind-the-scenes drama pitting factions with opposing
visions for the project. A Philadelphia group, headed by the former Mary
Munn of Radnor, the widow of the 10th Earl of Bessborough, favored an
accurate prerevolutionary restoration. A group from London that prevailed
wanted to create the multimedia "historical experience."
The former adversaries now play down
their divisions. But records show that they spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars on legal fees, and traces of the spat still emerge in chilly
"I can give you plenty of conflict,
but we want to emphasize the positive for fund-raising," said Robert
C. Landsiedel, managing director of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin
House, U.S., the organization chaired by Lady Bessborough that has
headquarters near Independence Hall.
During a tour of the London structure,
Mrcia Balisciano, the director of the Benjamin Franklin House, dismissed
the Philadelphia organization as an "affinity group" whose
contributions were minimal.
The Philadelphia nonprofit
organization's public tax records show that, between 1998 and 2003, it
raised $825,000 - Landsiedel says much of the money came from Bessborough
herself. But of the $621,000 it spent, less than $33,000 went toward the
house's restoration. Most of the money underwrote the organization's
operations, including $250,000 in legal fees.
In the last two years, Landsiedel said,
the group had made no more grants to London. But it has pledged $100,000
this year, once the latest project is done and London can certify that the
funds went toward authentic restoration rather than modern mechanical
"I don't think you'll ever get to
the point where the two groups completely 100 percent agree on every
single thing that happens with the building," said John G.
Giangiullio, a Philadelphia board member.
Amid the dispute, the London group
created its own U.S. branch, Benjamin Franklin House Foundation, to which
it directs American supporters to make tax-deductible contributions.
"These problems have not affected
us at all, not one iota," Balisciano said.
It seems fitting that Franklin would
once again inspire a transatlantic controversy.
Franklin traveled to London in 1757 as
Pennsylvania's agent, staying five years at Margaret Stevenson's house on
Craven Street. He returned from 1765 to 1775 as a colonial diplomat while
the Revolution loomed.
Londoners initially celebrated Franklin
the scientist, and he immersed himself in English society and devoted
himself to peacemaking with the Crown. But as the colonies' relations
soured with England, so did Franklin's, and he left under threat of
The 1739 house was relatively new when
Franklin lived there. But its foundation has shifted over the years, and a
fourth floor and a Mansard roof were added, too heavy for the underlying
structure. The house suffered bomb damage in World War II.
In the 1950s, the Earl of Bessborough
showed his wife the plaque marking the residence of her fellow
" 'Blow me down,' I said to my
husband," Lady Bessborough, 90, recalled in an interview in
Philadelphia, where she now lives. "I never thought [Franklin] really
lived in England."
Lady Bessborough helped create a charity
to save the Franklin house. The organization obtained title to the
property and sought funds from figures such as Walter Annenberg, then U.S.
ambassador to Britain. But big donors did not materialize.
"I suppose I didn't go about it
quite the right way. It was a bit of a struggle getting people interested
in it," Lady Bessborough said.
In the 1990s, Sir Bob Reid, a banker,
took over the charity. The reinvigorated group got a grant from Britain's
Heritage Lottery Fund, the key donor for $1.4 million in structural
repairs that were finished in 1998.
Reid hired consultants, who recommended
that, rather than completely restoring the house, the organization create
a theatrical presentation and charge a high price to limit traffic in the
fragile structure. Using the house as a stage got the organization around
a big obstacle - it has few authentic artifacts from Franklin's time.
"If you decided you wanted to kit
this out with 18th-century furniture, it would cost a couple hundred
thousand pounds," Balisciano said. "The insurance would be
Joan M. Reid, Sir Bob's wife, said that
the theatrical presentation takes advantage of the house's most valuable
"We don't have anything to
show," she said. "But we have a fantastic story."
Lady Bessborough held out for a
traditional museum. Much of the legal struggle she initiated concerned
ownership of the Franklin artifacts she helped collect, including a wallet
that Franklin inscribed with his Craven Street address.
"I want a library, too, and they're
not interested in that. They say, 'You haven't got any books,' " she
Both sides say the dispute is resolved.
Last year, the house received another grant from the British Heritage
Lottery Fund - worth more than $1.5 million - to complete work this year,
including the installation of sound and lighting equipment. The house is
scheduled to reopen by Jan. 17, Franklin's 300th birthday.
Bessborough said she will continue to
focus first on restoration. The Philadelphia group she chairs might use
some of its savings to pay for the house's long-term maintenance.
"Sometimes I think it's Franklin
who is still keeping me alive," she said.
For More Information
Friends of Benjamin Franklin House
U.S. Public Ledger Building
Benjamin Franklin House, U.K.
36 Craven St.
London WC2N 5NF