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A look at Franklin, from the other side of the pond

The London home where the statesman and inventor lived for more than 15 years is unveiled on the 300th anniversary of his birth.

January 18, 2006|Jill Lawless | Associated Press

LONDON — Benjamin Franklin, Londoner.

The U.S. founding father lived in the British capital for almost two decades before the American Revolution, working to bridge the widening gap between the colonies and the crown.

After decades of neglect and a $5.3-million restoration, his house was unveiled to the public Tuesday as a museum dedicated to a revolutionary who spent years trying to keep Britain and its American colonies united.

"He wasn't very successful, but he sowed the seeds of the Anglo-American special relationship," said Marcia Balisciano, director of the Benjamin Franklin House museum.

U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cut a red, white and blue ribbon Tuesday -- the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth -- to formally open the 18th century brick home.

The house where Franklin worked, performed scientific experiments and invented a musical instrument called the glass armonica will be open by appointment beginning today. Regular hours start in February.

Franklin lodged in the four-story brick building just off Trafalgar Square from 1757-1762 and from 1764-1775, acting as a diplomat on behalf of American colonists.

He shared the home at 36 Craven St. with landlady Margaret Stevenson, her daughter Polly and, for a time, Polly's husband, William Hewson, a surgeon who ran an anatomy school at the house.

Balisciano said the house, a center of the 18th-century intellectual ferment known as the Enlightenment, was "stuffed to the brim with people." Temporary residents included Franklin's niece, his illegitimate grandson and economist Adam Smith.

The house, which curators call the "first de facto U.S. Embassy," was the site of many of Franklin's scientific experiments, including the invention of bifocal glasses and the ethereal-sounding glass armonica, for which Beethoven and Mozart composed pieces.

"Each of the rooms tells a different part of Franklin's life in London," Balisciano said.

She said curators were driven by "what would have interested Franklin, who said 'I was born 200 years too soon.' "

Used as a hotel until World War II and then as offices for nonprofit groups, the house was almost derelict when the British government gave it to a charitable trust in the 1970s. The trust spent eight years renovating the building, which now includes a multimedia "historical experience," an archive of Franklin's papers and a science center.

The rooms, restored to the austere wood floors and painted paneling of their 18th century heyday, include the parlor in which Franklin -- a great fan of fresh air -- sat "air bathing" naked by the open windows.

Balisciano said it was fitting that the only surviving Franklin home in the world was in Britain. Franklin spent much of his time in London working to prevent a split that, by the time he left, he came to see as inevitable.

"He really believed that the ties that bound the two nations were stronger than what pulled them apart," Balisciano said.

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