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Benjamin Franklin's London Home Restored


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Lynn Neary. Happy Fourth of July!

And estimated 500,000 people are expected to turn out for fireworks tonight at the Mall to celebrate the Fourth. That's if the weather holds. Forecasters are predicting some clouds and isolated thunderstorms throughout the day.

INSKEEP: The Washington area was battered last week by torrential rains, which caused flooding in some areas. In fact, the National Archives, home of the Declaration of Independence, was closed due to flooding.

NEARY: But that document, and its power to inspire, remains intact. It will be read on the steps of the Archives today by soldiers who were wounded in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Now, few Americans are as closely associated with the Fourth of July as Benjamin Franklin, who was born 300 years ago. On the anniversary of his birth this past January, a new museum was opened in his honor.

But it was not in Philadelphia, or in Boston, or even in Paris where he lived for a time, it was in London, where Franklin spent nearly 16 years of his life before the revolution, trying to bring about reconciliation between Britain and the colonies.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Down a narrow, often overlooked street between Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Railroad Station, is a house that was there long before Nelson defeated the French at Trafalgar, and long before trains were even invented.

Number 36 Craven Street: residence, between 1757 and 1775, of Benjamin Franklin.

Unidentified woman (Tour Guide at Franklin Museum, London): (playing part of Polly Hewson, Franklin's wife) Dr. Franklin's guests, welcome. I am Mrs. Polly Hewson, widow of Dr. William Hewson, the well-known anatomist, and daughter of Mrs. Margaret Stevenson, in whose house this is. Please, come with me.

GIFFORD: Polly Hewson greets visitors in full 18th Century dress and wig, and takes them on a guided tour of the five-story Georgian house. The actress interacts with the voices of Franklin's friends and acquaintances, and of Franklin himself.

(Soundbite of recording of Unknown man, speaking as Benjamin Franklin)

Unknown man: The agreeable conversation I meet with among men of learning, and the notice taken of me by persons of distinction, are the principle things that soothe me under this painful absence of my family and friends.

GIFFORD: The residence itself is a wonderful Georgian townhouse, built in 1730, and still retaining much of its original shape and structure. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of one of the men who shapes not only the American Revolution, but the whole age of enlightenment that was exploding in Europe in the 18th Century.

The founding director of the project is Marcia Ballaciano(ph).

Ms. MARCIA BALLACIANO (Director of Benjamin Franklin Museum, London): I think that Benjamin Franklin remained so long because he did have, as an Anglo-American, a passion and a belief that there was a third way - that you could avoid bloodshed and war. And I think that he spent the majority of his 16 years trying to make that a reality.

GIFFORD: Thirty-six Craven Street was the de facto first U.S. Embassy in London, and anyone who was anyone from the colonies, or indeed in London society, visited Ben Franklin here, including Thomas Paine and William Pitt.

As well as his political and diplomatic activities, it was here that Franklin carried on many of his scientific experiments. Marcia Ballaciano says she was keen to make the house a place of learning too, for younger generations, and on the top floor is a student's science center.

Ms. BALLACIANO: One of the things that he did when he lived in this house is he invented an instrument called the glass armonica. So what we do is we have, one day a week when we're closed to the public and only open to schools, and they practice walking through how to develop a musical instrument.

You actually need lots of water on your hands and in a bowl, and you make sure that the surface area is quite wet. And then you put your fingers on the glass and apply the right amount of pressure. But we'll cheat. We'll actually use a baby wipe, and we can - we can make a sound.

(Soundbite of the glass armonica)

And the children have great fun hearing the sounds of the armonica.

(Soundbite of the glass armonica)

GIFFORD: In the end, of course, Franklin failed in his mission to keep Britain and the colonies together. In 1775, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he left behind 36 Craven Street, which had been his home for most of the previous 16 years.

(Soundbite of recording of Unknown man, speaking as Benjamin Franklin)

Unknown man: Then empire squandered for three-pence on a pound of tea.

GIFFORD: Franklin left to support the revolution, clearly with some regrets, at leaving Polly Houston, whom he treated as a daughter and at leaving England itself.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: Of all the enviable things that England has, I envy most its people.

GIFFORD: Now, the people of England are returning the favor. The Benjamin Franklin house has become a lively and welcomed new addition to London's museum scene.

Rob Gifford, NPR News London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.