On the eve of the American Revolution, Franklin sat in its parlor negotiating a compromise with William Pitt the Elder. As history showed, the effort failed.
Two centuries after Franklin left, the house that sits behind Charing Cross Station on a slope leading to the River Thames fell into disrepair. It endured floods, a sinking foundation, fire, a Luftwaffe bomb that landed on it but did not explode, and, more recently, squatters and pigeons.
Today, Franklin's home-away-from-Philadelphia is being reborn as a museum and education center. For the last five years, a private group has been restoring it, hoping to forge the same type of transatlantic links that Franklin established.
It is the only house in which Franklin lived and worked that still stands. His other houses - in Boston, on Market Street in Philadelphia, and in Paris - have not survived.
The British-based Friends of Benjamin Franklin House and the U.S.-based Benjamin Franklin House Foundation have raised $2 million toward the restoration cost of $3.5 million. Donations have enabled them to perform structural repairs on the 1730s building, which enjoys a Grade I listing, Britain's highest designation for historic buildings.
But much remains to be done.
The interior will not be finished until the additional $1.5 million is raised. Marcia Balisciano, director of the Benjamin Franklin House, said much of it, including some floorboards and doors, was original. English Heritage, a British conservation agency, has re-created original colors by analyzing paint samples removed from tiny holes drilled into the walls.
A Student Science Center and a Scholarship Center are planned for the upper floors.
Finding the money to complete the project in the next two years has been the trustees' biggest challenge, Balisciano said.
Britain's Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, the Getty Foundation, and the William Hewlett Trust were among the major donors to the $1.2 million structural repairs. But donations for the interior restoration, including a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy in London, have trickled in.
"It's really a disgrace that people haven't stepped forward to make this house a center of learning about Franklin," said Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author of a recent biography of Franklin. "It's a gorgeous place, and it would not take a lot to make it a fitting monument to Franklin and a center of learning."
Prospective donors can have rooms and centers at the house named after them for $120,000 to $850,000.
One problem fund-raisers face is the dual nature of the house's identity. Franklin lamented that he sometimes didn't feel fully accepted as the holder of a royal appointment as a colonial postmaster in America or as an American representing Pennsylvania in England. So, too, the house in which the printer, inventor, scientist, man of letters, politician and diplomat lived has struggled to find someone to claim it as their own.
"I think the read on it is the British don't care about it and the Americans don't know about it," said Roy Goodman, curator of printed materials at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which Franklin founded in 1743.
Representatives of the Philosophical Society and other groups with an interest in Franklin, including the nonprofit Friends of Franklin in Philadelphia, have met with Balisciano and the house's trustees and provided publicity and access to their historical resources and databases. But Balisciano said none of the Franklin-related organizations in Philadelphia had made a significant donation.
Officials at the University of Pennsylvania, founded by Franklin as the Academy in 1740, have discussed having a Penn Center at the Benjamin Franklin House. Peter Conn, deputy provost at Penn, said that the university was "delighted" by the restoration efforts and that he had met twice with the chairman of the house's trustees, Bob Reid.
"We have subsequently exchanged letters establishing a working relationship, and are moving forward on the details now," Conn said.
But, he said, Penn will not be contributing money directly to the house. It expects its relationship to be "consultative and academic."
Some officials at the Benjamin Franklin House are disappointed that Philadelphia's institutions have not given the project more support. Though born in Boston, the famed polymath is most closely identified with Philadelphia, where he arrived at age 17 as a journeyman printer. He made his first trip to London in 1725 to purchase printing equipment and went home the following year.
He would not return until 1757, when he began a five-year stay in Margaret Stevenson's lodging house on Craven Street. He returned again from 1765 to 1775, before departing under threat of arrest as the first shots were fired in the Revolution back home.
According to biographies and his letters, Franklin enjoyed being a man-about-town in London and traveling in Europe. He partook of the vibrant "coffeehouse" culture in the cosmopolitan capital, and mixed with the likes of philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, scientist Joseph Priestley, actor David Garrick, and Samuel Johnson's biographer, James Boswell.
He also mounted lightning rods atop St. Paul's Cathedral, developed the glass armonica as a musical instrument in the Stevensons' living room, and performed experiments on oil's ability to still disruptions on the surface of water in the South London village of Clapham.
Balisciano said that if fund-raising goals are met, the trustees hope to open the house to the public in 2005, a year before celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth in the United States. For now, work is on hold until funding is secured, and the building functions mainly as an office for Balisciano and an assistant.
"It's pretty amazing that this house, which is 200-plus years old, is still around," Balisciano said. "We have a major opportunity to create something out of nothing with it."
Contact staff writer Andrea Gerlin at 215-854-2405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.