From the Business Files of the Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, U.S.

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From the Business Files of the Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, U.S.

2009-09-18 14:17

My first task as an HSP Archives Intern was to create a finding aid for the business files of an organization called The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. From these files a narrative unfolds that shows the difficulty of restoring and opening an historic house museum. Not only is the physical restoration a painstaking process, but the process can be hampered when those undertaking the restoration cannot agree. Therefore, the Benjamin Franklin House also serves to highlight the interesting question of what exactly we are to do with the few historical residences still standing. But first a little background…

The Friends of the Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. was a non-profit charity group dedicated to the renovation and development as a museum of a decaying 18th century home at 36 Craven Street, in London. Benjamin Franklin rented rooms at 36 Craven Street from 1757 to 1774 while he lived in England as a representative of the Pennsylvania colony. Franklin enjoyed immense popularity and fame during this time in England, and his stay was only cut short by the stirrings of revolution in the colonies.

Three centuries later, the Craven Street house stood as the only residence that Franklin ever lived in still in existence. The cause to save and restore the house was led by Mary Bessborough, the U.S.-born wife of the 10th Earl of Bessborough. Lady Bessborough and her late husband were able to use their influence to secure the house and also procure a sizable collection of Franklin memorabilia and The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.K. was established as a non-profit charity in 1978. However, it was clear that to fully stabilize and restore the house would be very costly. In order to obtain government funding, the management structure of the charity was strengthened and Sir Robert Reid was named as chairman. The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, U.S. was established as a separate non-profit charity in 1992 to raise funds on the other side of the Atlantic to support the restoration.

Where the two organizations split was on what the function of the house should be. Reid and the U.K. group favored using the home to create a theatrical experience for visitors complete with an actress/tour-guide complimented by pre-recorded sounds. The upper floor would feature a children’s science lab where Franklin experiments could be recreated. Access would be limited and entrance fees would be steep. Bessborough and the U.S. group felt that the theatrics were dubious, the upper floors were too fragile to support the foot traffic, and that the high entrance fee would limit attendance. The specifics of the infighting are where the files come in handy.

The files themselves consist of a myriad of documents. For every file that illuminates the story a bit better, there are multiple files of fax reports, travel itineraries, party invite lists, Christmas cards, and good old junk mail. As a budding historian I can appreciate the act of saving everything - after all, you never know what’s going to be important. I was also quite glad that these people carried on their correspondences in the “old-fashioned” way - through faxes and… snail-mail. The abundance of all the unimportant documents made the instances when I ‘hit’ on an important document all the more thrilling.

The first hint of trouble I came across were correspondences between the BFH US and the Charity Commission of the United Kingdom. Apparently, there had been an issue with some funds that the U.S. group raised and how the U.K. group had used those funds in the restoration. It would appear as though the U.K. group had used the funds to continue forward with their plan of using the upper-floors of the house for a science center. Ultimately, the Charity Commission decided that the matter was one that needed to be settled “internally.”

Adding to the tension was the case of the Franklin memorabilia. As I said, prior to renovation, the Friends had put together a collection of Franklin’s old belongings and other Franklin-related pieces. While a display case was being constructed to house these items, they were given to Lady Bessborough for safekeeping. However, when the case was finished, Bessborough refused to give the items back, citing that the case was inadequate and furthermore that the security of the artifacts would be compromised by the theatrical presentations going on. Documents from a lawyer retained by the U.K. group threatening Bessborough with legal action if the objects were not returned is how this particular anecdote came to me. It’s not clear how the situation was finally resolved, but it is safe to assume they were returned not long after this letter arrived.

There are plenty of boxes of files left to sort through, and no doubt plenty more interesting tidbits on this story. Stay tuned for more.

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