Saturday, June 24, 2017

Franklin's Spirit of '76

Photos courtesy of the National Park Service
Few landmarks embody the Spirit of ’76 as poignantly as Franklin Court in Philadelphia. For it is a spirit in its own right—a sculptural “ghost” of Benjamin Franklin’s home, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for the American Bicentennial in 1976. 

Erected on the foundations of Franklin’s residence and print shop—both of which his daughter’s heirs razed in 1812 for income housing—the steel skeleton sculptures suggest the bare-bones framework, rooflines, chimneys and pass-through archway of the buildings, as well as the extent of their interior spaces. 

For instance, the 54-foot-high “house” sculpture lets you know that Franklin’s dwelling, begun in 1763, was three stories tall and had ten rooms.

His wife, Deborah Read Rogers, moved into the house two years later when he went overseas to represent Pennsylvania in the British Parliament and oppose its passage of the Stamp Act of 1765. 

Returning in 1775, Franklin departed again for France to forge the French Alliance with the Colonies that aided their quest for independence. 

While away, he wrote Deborah in detail what he wanted done to the house. She oversaw its renovation, as indicated by the correspondence engraved in the footprint’s flagstones. The draftsman’s images of walls, closets, window/door openings, stairs and a fireplace show how Franklin planned his home, including the library he added in 1788, two years before his death. Children may associate these lines with a basketball court or playground, but once they learn their architectural symbolism, they might enjoy sitting, standing, walking or going in-and-out-the-windows in the different “rooms,” imagining their look and feel.

For these sculptures leave the true appearance of the house and shop up to your imagination, as no historical records or renderings of them have ever surfaced. But plenty surfaced in archeological excavations of their grounds: foundations, water wells, privy pits, and ceramic artifacts, including a rare Bristol punchbowl discovered in a pit. The well and pit sites are preserved. 

Mulberry and plane trees, brick paving, and stone walks recreate the quiet, orderly court ambiance Franklin planned as a retreat from city life, as well as direct access to it when needed. The cobblestone path through the print shop’s archway continues through the central arch of the colonial rowhouse block at 314-322 Market Street, all on axis with his residence.

Built between 1753 and 1797 for Franklin's business purposes, the diversely designed Georgian-Federal rowhouses are restored to reflect some of the many hats he wore as postmaster, printer and publisher. The United States Postal Service Museum at 314 displays original Pony Express pouches and issues of Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post Office at 316 still uses his trademark postmark “B. Free Franklin” to cancel stamps. 

Franklin’s obsession with fire-resistant buildings (as founder of the first fire department in Pennsylvania) is exhibited on three floors at 318, which he built as a rental property. Exposed walls reveal wooden joists separated by plaster and masonry. Glassware and pottery unearthed in the excavation are displayed in the cellar. 

The Printing Office and Bindery at 320 exhibits colonial printing and binding equipment. At 322, Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, published The General Advertiser newspaper. It became The Aurora in 1802 under the editorship of William Duane, who married Bache’s widow, and later James Wilson, grandfather of President Woodrow Wilson. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” edited Godey's Lady's Book there from 1837 to 1877.

True to its archeological emphasis, Franklin Court continues beneath the privies as the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Its 2011-2013 renovation into a modern design of metal posts and beams and a brown-tinted glass facade displeased Venturi and Scott Brown, and those expecting to see the room below may be in for a letdown.

The arcaded, columned colonial hall displayed automated statuettes of Franklin in different phases of his life, spotlighted and revolved chronologically to depict him resisting the Stamp Act in Parliament, schmoozing with Louis XVI at the Court of Versailles, or cajoling the Constitutional Convention to approve the U.S. Constitution while nearing death.

Exhibits in the new museum's bare-bones spaces include a computer-animated rendition of Franklin's "library." We observe him quill-penning his autobiography in his final days, letting us in on his reflections on his extraordinary life and the future of the nation he co-founded.

Also on display are some of Franklin's great inventions: bifocal spectacles, the Franklin stove, the pneumatic air pump, Poor Richard's Almanack, and the “Armonica,” a glass harmonica of graduated glass bowls on a pedal-operated spindle that produce different musical tones when wet fingers press their rims as they turn (for which Mozart wrote his Adagio for Glass Armonica in C Major).

Each of the five rooms focuses on one of Franklin's character traits: Ardent and Dutiful, Ambitious and Rebellious, Motivated to Improve, Curious and Full of Wonder, Strategic and Persuasive. The videos, touch-screen and mechanical interactive exhibits, and artifact displays encourage children to adapt those positive characteristics into their own lives, so that Franklin's spirit of '76 can live again in American generations to come.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

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