Anglo-American treasure is saved: Benjamin Franklin's home set to become a museum, Matthew Brace and Guy Mansell report

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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the United States' leading historic treasures has been saved by an English conservation watchdog and an Anglo-American charity after congressmen in Washington declined from offering funds.

The house inhabited for 16 years by Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman and inventor, is to be restored and made into a living museum. The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, will be able to start work on preserving the crumbling building next month with a grant from English Heritage.

Despite many Americans considering 36 Craven Street, Charing Cross, to be the most historically important building outside the States, it has not won the sympathy of the US government, which has declined to fund its restoration.

Stephen Sinnott, the honorary managing director of the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, was shocked by the lack of commitment from Washington. 'I'm rather horrified that they haven't supported us, quite frankly.

'I spent a couple of years fighting with the Congress to get more money but in the end the House (of Representatives) and Senate couldn't agree on the amount so they didn't give us anything.'

Now English Heritage has stepped in by provisionally offering pounds 200,000 to save and preserve the house for posterity. The Friends must submit renovation plans by the end of this month for the commission to consider and, once funds are forthcoming, will then be able to start shoring up the house before the winter takes hold and does further damage to the flaking brickwork.

Such initial protection is needed to prevent the further disintegration of the house's shell. The footing and facade have been twisted out of kilter so much by subsidence during its 262 years that the upper storeys will have to be laced with steel poles to prevent the house's collapse.

The Friends' dream for the house is to create a living museum boasting many of Franklin's relics, including equipment he used to test his inventions. From Craven Street he gave the world a number of scientific devices, some of which are still used to this day.

The lightning conductor, bifocal glasses and a stove were all products of his imagination dreamt up while living there. He discovered electricity's positive and negative charges while flying metal-tipped kites into thunderstorms from the banks of the Thames at the end of the street. To his borough, Westminster, he introduced refuse collection, street paving and street lighting.

The Friends also want to turn the house into a cultural centre for heritage and learning the like of which Franklin himself would have been proud, and one which will cater for the same range of interests which he delighted in, including science, government, printing, business, philosophy, philanthropy and engineering.

The plan is also to buy the adjacent townhouse, equally in need of restoration, and convert it into a library.

It was from the unassuming house in Craven Street that Franklin helped to shape the United States as it is today. He is probably best remembered for his diplomatic skills representing the American colonies and in helping to draft the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Also from this address he penned colloquialisms which have fallen into daily English usage. 'Snug as a bug in a rug', 'time is money' and 'early to bed, early to rise' are all his expressions.

During the Second World War the house narrowly escaped destruction when two incendiary bombs fell in the garden. Later it was targeted by arsonists who caused further damage to the property by starting three fires. More recently this major Anglo-American heritage asset has been threatened by a lack of funding.

The Friends, concerned at the risk of losing the building to office developers, mounted a fundraising campaign. The names of patrons, trustees and supporters of the Friends and its sister organisation in the US, the American Franklin Friends' Foundation, read like a White House top table list.

The two founder Friends are George Bush and Baroness Thatcher; the patrons include John Major and Lord Hailsham. Among the associated honorary patrons are the Commission for the Bicentennial of the Constitution, the National Society of Sons of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames of America.

They have raised almost of third of the initial goal of pounds 300,000 to save the house from the being sold to developers, which will be reached with English Heritage's offer of pounds 200,000. An overall total of pounds 3m will eventually be needed to fully restore the house and create the museum.

Franklin Facts

The tenth and youngest son of a candlemaker, Benjamin Franklin was born in Milk Street, Boston on 17 January, 1706.

Prior to 1748 he mobilised a militia for the defence of Philadelphia against a possible invasion by the French and Spanish. He was its postmaster from 1737 to 1753.

He came to London in 1757 as the Agent of the Philadelphia Assembly and within a short time became the Chief Agent of the Colonies to the Crown, acting as the mouthpiece for the British colonies in debates with Ministers over self-government.

He helped to write the Declaration of Independence, negotiated the treaty by which Britain recognised its former 13 colonies as a sovereign nation and helped to frame the Constitution.

He was the first American to be made a fellow of the Royal Society and was also made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the French Academy. He found the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania.

He died on 17 April, 1790.

(Photographs omitted)

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