Tuesday, January 17, 2006

LONDON — Benjamin Franklin, Londoner.

The U.S. founding father lived in the British capital for almost two decades before the American Revolution, working to bridge the widening gap between the colonies and the crown.

After decades of neglect and a $5.3 million restoration, his house was opened to the public yesterday — the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth — as a museum dedicated to a revolutionary who spent years trying to keep Britain and its American colonies united.

“He wasn’t very successful, but he sowed the seeds of the Anglo-American special relationship,” said Marcia Balisciano, director of the Benjamin Franklin House.

U.S. Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cut a red, white and blue ribbon to formally open the 18th-century brick home.

It will be open by appointment beginning today. Regular hours start next month.

Franklin lived in the four-story brick building just off Trafalgar Square from 1757 to 1762 and from 1764 to 1775, acting as a diplomat on behalf of American colonists.

He shared the home at 36 Craven St. with landlady Margaret Stevenson, her daughter, Polly Hewson, and, for a time, her daughter’s husband, William Hewson, a surgeon who ran an anatomy school at the house. Hundreds of human bones were found in the basement during excavations in the 1990s.

Mrs. Balisciano said the house, a center of the 18th-century intellectual ferment known as the Enlightenment, was “stuffed to the brim with people.” Temporary residents included Franklin’s niece, his illegitimate grandson and the economist Adam Smith.

Franklin’s 20th-century biographer, Carl Van Doren, said he was less a lodger than the head of the household, “living in serene comfort and affection.”

The house — which curators call the “first de facto U.S. Embassy” — was the site of many of Franklin’s scientific experiments, including the invention of bifocal glasses and the ethereal-sounding musical instrument called glass armonica, for which Beethoven and Mozart composed pieces.

Used as a hotel until World War II and then as offices, the house was almost derelict when the British government gave it to a charitable trust in the 1970s. The trust spent eight years renovating the building, which now includes a multimedia “historical experience,” an archive of Franklin’s papers and a student science center.

The rooms, restored to the austere wood floors and painted paneling of their 18th-century heyday, include the parlor in which Franklin — a great fan of fresh air — sat “air bathing” naked by the open windows.

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