When No 36 Craven Street — a narrow, stately four-storey townhouse — was built in the West End of London in 1728, it was home to William Nind, a prosperous ironmonger. This was just one more addition to a city that was changing fast from medieval to “modern”. Baron William Gaven had knocked down a “mean” alley of old houses to make way for these fine dwellings.
The house’s claim to fame came decades later, when another inhabitant, Margaret Stevenson, found, despite the presence also in the house of her daughter Polly and her husband William Hewson, who ran an anatomy school there, that money was tight. So she took in a boarder from the colonies.
His name was Benjamin Franklin, and his presence brought many of the scientific and political stars of the Enlightenment to its grand front parlour – Pitt the Elder, David Hume, Joseph Priestley and Sir John Pringle.
It also brought the growing conflict between the American Colonies and the Home Country to the very door, with an angry mob gathering outside after Franklin had made public the letters of the Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts.
After Franklin was forced to flee London, No 36 Craven Street sank back into obscurity; used for a century until the end of World War II as a hotel, as was much of the street; guests were attracted by the close proximity of Charing Cross Station. But by the 1970s the house was derelict and in danger of demolition.
It was then that a few enthusiasts stepped in and formed the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House. Their efforts have finally born fruit, with the house having just opened for visitors as a museum.
Yet it is unlike any museum you’ve ever visited before. Rather than go the traditional route of installing period furniture “like that Franklin would have used”, they’ve maintained the original, evocative framework of the house – the magnificent broad floorboards, the original wood panelling on the walls and the fireplaces – and added an experience that is part multi-media, part theatre.
You are guided in a small group around the house by “Polly Hewson” in person, now a widow, for whom Franklin (his wife back in America since she was afraid of sea journeys) felt great affection. And it seems this was reciprocated.
She offers personal and educational asides about Franklin – “he’s a great believer in the benefits of fresh air”, “he never eats beef; it makes his back itch” – as you drop in on the life of the house. Mrs Hewson is the only character you meet in person, but you eavesdrop on conversations, and watch the age unfold.
In Mrs Stevenson’s downstairs parlour, the visit begins with tea drinking and cribbage is accompanied by light conversation. As you progress through the house there’s a mix of politics and science and more personal revelations. The famous kite lightning rod gets an outing, as does his famous stove, and the less successful attempt to reform spelling in English. Unobtrusive speakers and projectors create not an image of the actual scene, but a suggestive array of ideas and images.
This won’t be to everyone’s taste; those who are expecting the traditional “historic house” might be disappointed, but it is an original and interesting way to use modern technology to bring life to history.
The director, Dr Marcia Balisciano, attributes some of the inspiration to the approach to the wonderful Dennis Severs’ house, and although the use of 21st-century technology is a long way from Severs’ vision, most visitors will see the connection.
And even if you find the sound and light show a bit much, you are still walking in the steps of one of the founders of America – “The Father of all the Yankees,” as Thomas Carlyle dubbed him – and that will satisfy many.