Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 8, 2005

Rivals call truce for project
Two different visions but one goal: Restore Franklin house.

LONDON -- 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 surprise.

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 comments.

"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 work.

"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 arrest.

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 Philadelphian.

" '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 high."

Joan M. Reid, Sir Bob's wife, said that the theatrical presentation takes advantage of the house's most valuable asset.

"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 said.

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

Suite 1048

Philadelphia 19106-3413


Benjamin Franklin House, U.K.

36 Craven St.

London WC2N 5NF


Web: home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth