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Franklin’s legacy on display

The large white steel frame in the foreground marks the location and size of Benjamin Franklin's home in Franklin Court. Franklin's grandchildren demolished the house in 1812, but the foundations are still visible through viewing portals. National Park Service photo

Benjamin Franklin’s home in Philadelphia was torn down more than 200 years ago, but visitors to the city can still catch a glimpse of the life he lead there.

The National Park Service has a few museums dedicated to him at Independence National Historical Park, according to Adam Duncan, a ranger at the park.

“The main area of the park is the site of his house,” Duncan said. “Unfortunately, his house was torn down a long time time ago, around 1812.”

If it seems strange that the house of one of the most prominent Founding Fathers would have been torn down a little more than a decade after his death, some context might help.

Benjamin Franklin

“Philadelphia was changing, and it’s important people understand that,” Duncan said. “Philadelphia had always been the heart of political life.”

It is the city where the Declaration of Independence was approved and served as the capital city of both the state and the nation. It was the state capital starting from the founding of the colony in the 1600s until 1799, when Lancaster was made the capital.

Harrisburg became the capital in 1812.

Philadelphia had also been the unofficial national capital starting with the Second Continental Congress in the 1770s, and was the official capital from 1790 until 1800.

When government left, the city started to bring in industry, increasing demand for land.

“Franklin’s home was the largest free-standing building in the city,” Duncan said.

It had been used for multiple purposes following Franklin’s death in 1790, but with the rise of industry, Franklin’s descendants tore down the house and sold off the lots piecemeal.

Starting in the 1940s, archaeological digs at the site have uncovered more than 1 million artifacts from the foundations, ice pits and privies.

“Archaeologists love that stuff,” Duncan said. “You can date those objects. You can connect them. It tells us a lot about the past.”

Stripped to the bare walls, this building allows visitors to examine 18th century building practices. It was once a three-story rental property where a prosperous merchant kept shop, and lived with his family. National Park Service photo
Franklin in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is the city Franklin is most associated with, but he wasn’t born there. He was born in Boston in 1706 and came to Philadelphia after he ran away from an apprenticeship with his brother when he was 17.

His destiny would be tied to that of his new city.

“Philadelphia is Franklin’s lifelong home,” Duncan said. “He certainly considered himself a Philadelphian.”

It was in Philadelphia that Franklin founded the publications that would make him famous — and rich. First was a newspaper, the “Pennsylvania Gazette,” in 1728, followed by “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in 1732.

Just a few years later, in 1737, he was made the postmaster of Philadelphia, a post he held until, in 1753, he was made deputy postmaster for the British colonies.

Here are two reproduction 18th-century printing presses in the Printing Office. Franklin would have printed on presses much like these. The Printing Office also includes a typesetting area, bindery and Franklin's grandson's newspaper office. National Park Service photo

While in that position, he helped to cut the time for mail delivery between Philadelphia to Boston from three weeks down to just one.

He would lost his postmaster position in 1774, after he shared correspondence from a British official. But his experience was one reason he was made the first Postmaster General, making him the founder of the U.S. Postal Service.

Franklin would eventually make eight trans-Atlantic crossings, spending time in London and Paris trying to advance the cause of American independence, but he would always return to Philadelphia.

It was where he performed his famous experiments proving lightning was electric, which in turn led to the installation of a lightning rod on what’s now Independence Hall.

In fact, Duncan said, parts of the original chain used to ground that lightning rod are still visible in the plaster of Independence Hall.

As visitors leave the exhibit area, in Franklin's Life and Legacy, they will have the opportunity to reflect, along with Benjamin Franklin himself, on his life and accomplishments. By way of computer animation, visitors can eavesdrop on Franklin in a room intended to be a recreation of his library, as he sits at his desk writing his autobiography and hear five stories that were included in the final version. National Park Service photo
Explaining Franklin’s impact

Franklin’s legacy is immense, Duncan said, with inventions and innovations in so many different fields. He helped to start one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in the country and is responsible for as many as 140 inventions, to name just two examples.

“His work ethic is a big part of that,” Duncan said. “His curiosity is a big part of that.”

To help give visitors a sense of Franklin’s impact, there is an interactive museum, as well as Franklin Court, the site of Franklin’s home, and three buildings Franklin had built in the 1780s as rental properties, which now house a printing office with two reproduction 18th century presses, artifacts from the archaeological dig and a working post office.

Franklin’s passion for playing chess also cultivated important personal traits such as strategic thinking and patience that helped him become an effective negotiator and diplomat. Visitors will learn about Franklin’s role in securing French support for the American Revolution and his skill at political problem-solving. National Park Service photo

Many of the nearly 1 million artifacts found on the site are displayed in the museum, while in the courtyard, a steel frame gives visitors a sense of the scale of Franklin’s house.

Despite his prominence, and the fact the house was the largest free-standing building in the city when it was built, what it looked like is unclear.

The steel frame is a way to hint at the size of the home while acknowledging what’s unknown.

“The (National Park Service) generally doesn’t like to do reconstructions, especially when we don’t know what it looked like,” Duncan said.

Other exhibits at the site include information about Franklin’s namesake grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, called “Benny,” who followed in Franklin’s footsteps as a printer and newspaper editor. Shortly before his death, Franklin built his grandson a printing shop and bindery.

That also was torn down, but a steel frame also marks its locations.

While the home Franklin lived in is gone, parts of its foundations remain, and they give one more glimpse into the creative solutions Franklin found for major problems.

Fire was a constant hazard in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is one reason Franklin founded a fire company. In his own home, he looked for ways to prevent fires, including moving the kitchen of the home into the basement, where the floor was brick.

“Franklin, he’s always a scientist,” Duncan said.

Enter the Fragments of Franklin Court exhibit through the courtyard door. Benjamin Franklin built this home in 1786 as a rental property. Now it features an archaeological exhibit containing artifacts found buried in Franklin Court. National Park Service photo

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