Having just visited the only Ben Franklin house in the world still standing (in London), I decided to return to Philadelphia, the city where he lived most of his life, to see how the Americans have reinterpreted Ben in a brand new museum . Franklin, one of the nation’s founders, was a true polymath, with wide-ranging interests and talents similar in some ways to Thomas Jefferson. Whereas Jefferson’s home, an autobiography of sorts into which he poured his energies, survives in restored splendor today, Franklin’s home is a different story.
At the age of 56, after five years of living in London, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. He and his wife Deborah decided it was time to build a house instead of renting. They ended up building a three-story ten room brick house in a courtyard off Market Street. While involved in the original design, he set off for London again in 1764 and was away during most of the house’s construction. It is interesting that while he was discussing the house with his wife, he was writing to friends in London that he would be back soon. He had told them he had business to settle in Philadelphia before he could move to London permanently. He knew his wife would never leave Philadelphia and some historians such as Gordon Wood suggest the house was perhaps a salve to his conscience, knowing he didn’t want to return. The Franklin’s marriage was interesting, to say the least.
Once back in London, Franklin maintained an interest in the house and letters to his wife gave her detailed guidance on its construction and embellishment. He went on shopping sprees and sent back many purchases with which to furnish the house.
Franklin’s stay in London came to an end in 1775 and he returned to Philadelphia. By then his wife had died and his country was at war with Britain. He moved into the house on Market street and, except for nine years in France, lived there the rest of his life.
In 1812 the house was razed to make room for a road and other buildings. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In the mid-1970s when the National Park Service decided to purchase and interpret the site as part of Independence National Historical Park, they faced a decision. They hired archaeologists to find the houses’s foundations and the excavation revealed a variety of useful information. Yet not quite enough. One option was to reconstruct a house on the site, using limited historical evidence to imagine it. Another was to create a memorial park space with interpretive panels to tell the story. They concluded that there was just not enough evidence about the facade of the house and ended up hiring a well-known architectural firm to design a “ghost structure” of metal beams to show the dimensions of the three-story house. The construction included viewing wells that allow visitors to look down into the archaeological site and see the original foundations.
While many architectural critics praised the design, I remember visiting the site as a child in 1976 and being very disappointed that no house existed. The design was not enough to stimulate my imagination and I didn’t like it. As concrete learners, most kids need a little more than a shape to get engaged in a topic.
Given the lack of historical evidence, I certainly understand why the Park Service did not build a reconstruction. Yet, I hope someday the agency will invest in technology that will allow visitors to walk the site and use augmented reality with artist renderings to help imagine what it looked like.
The reconstructed print shops on Market Street and the original brick archway entrance to the courtyard, with label indicating that Franklin used that entrance many times, help visitors to get a sense of the man. The brand-new multi-million dollar renovation of the original 1970s museum underneath the site features a small 45-piece collection of Franklin artifacts and lots of technology to engage visitors with larger ideas about Franklin, and correct a few common misconceptions along the way.
Yet, I somehow always leave the place unsatisfied. Franklin’s many complex layers should be examined in greater depth. Where Mount Vernon and Monticello, the homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, ooze the personalities of their owners, Franklin Court falls flat. It fails to do justice to this amazing and very complicated person.