Monday, July 18, 2011

"If You Would Not Be Forgotten" Spencer House and Franklin House

Spencer House - The State Dining Room

 "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing."  Benjamin Franklin

Old Ben's witty quote seems to sum up the historic houses I saw in London and the people who built them. 

After the Linley Sambourne House, I took a bus and the tube to Green Park to get to Spencer House.  This fabulous house sits just across the Park from Buckingham Palace.  Just imagine being able to look out of your back garden and see if Liz and Phil are home or not!

See that circle where Constitution Hill and The Mall meet?
That's Buckingham Palace.  Pretty nice neighborhood
wouldn't you say?
If the name seems vaguely familiar that's because the house belonged to Princess Diana's family.  Remember?  Before she married Charles the Philanderer she was Lady Diana Spencer, the daughter of an Earl, from a very old English family.  The Spencer family used the house as their town house when ever they came up to London.  In fact they lived in the house until 1924 when inheritance taxes made it too expensive to keep in the Spencer's portfolio.  For several years the Spencers leased the house out to various government agencies and to Christie's Auction House.  Finally in 1985 The Rothchilds took the lease and began to restore the house.  Yea!  That's right.  Those Rothchilds.   I didn't know they were still around.

Countess Margaret Georgiana Spencer. 
Just squint your eyes and imagine her with
a little mascara.  See!  She was pretty. 

The house was very, very grand as you would expect a house that neighbors Buckingham Palace should be. In fact, it is actually a palace.  The web site says it is the only remaining 18th century private palace in London.  I wonder what the requirements are for a house to be considered a palace rather than just a fancy-shmancy house?    I wish I had thought to ask that question! 

The story behind the house was really pretty romantic.  It was built by the very first Earl Spencer as a wedding present for his wife.  Theirs was a marriage based on love.  In fact, John Spencer's father had forbidden him to marry Margaret Georgiana Poyntz because she came from an untitled family.  In other words, she was a commoner!  She was also beautiful and smart.  John loved Georgiana and couldn't live without her, so they married privately in his mother's dressing room and only told his father after the deed was done.  John and Margaret had a long and very happy marriage and five children.  Good for them! 

The Painted Room.  Notice all that expensive green paint.
This room really was fantastic!  I couldn't find any pictures that
truly did it credit.
The first Earl Spencer built the house between 1756 and 1766, a few years before the plane trees were planted all over London. In one of the rooms there was a painting of Spencer House and Green Park behind it.  The park had absolutely no trees at all.  It was a grassy pasture used to graze the Duke of Buckingham's sheep.  The tour guide told us that the plane trees were planted because the early Victorians figured out that plane trees helped clean the polluted London air. They absorbed the bad air and then shed their bark to discard the toxins. 

Our tour guide also told us that most of the rooms were painted various shades of green because green was the most expensive paint color in the 1700's and 1800's.   Huh!  Who knew?  I wish I had asked her why?
There's all kinds of details I could tell you.  It was the first Palladian house built in London.  The house was designed and built by Vardy but the interiors were finished by James Stuart.  Stuart liked his ale and liked living at Earl Spencer's expense, so he took his time finishing the interior.
The Library looked out over the lovely gardens and into Green Park.
It was definitely a million dollar view.
But when he did work, he was a perfectionist about filling the house with the finest neo-classical detail.  Fashionable Georgians like the Spencers were fascinated by anything from ancient Greece.  And Stuart, although he procrastinated, knew his stuff.

There was another interesting tidbit.  During World War II when it became obvious that Germany would bomb London, the Spencer's took everything they could out of the house:  all the priceless paintings, sculptures, ceramics, furniture, silver, and china.  They even took the skirting boards, marble columns, and  irreplaceable architectural details like fireplaces and chandelier surrounds on the ceiling.  All these treasures were carefully numbered and tagged and then stored in the basement and cellars at Althorpe, their country estate.  Things that couldn't be taken down like the one of a kind wall paintings were covered with canvas to protect them as best they could.  It was a good thing the Spencer's did this because Buckingham Palace was bombed at least two times and the house right next door was obliterated!  They built a very ugly mid-century modern steel and glass house in its place.  Yuck!  Why do people do that?

After Spencer House I walked up the Mall to Trafalgar Square and over a few blocks down The Strand to the Benjamin Franklin House.  It was fascinating, just like Ben.

According to the historians who run the museum, this is the only remaining Benjamin Franklin house.  That was a shock!  Franklin lived in the house for sixteen years during the mid 1700's while he was the American Ambassador to England.  He came back to the colonies in 1775 when the Americans decided they had no choice but to declare independence.  "No taxation without representation!"  King George wouldn't listen to anyone, so Franklin came home to help the Continental Congress write the Declaration of Independence.      

The house was actually a boarding house.  The landlady, Mrs. Craven, lived on the ground floor and Franklin rented out two of the floors above her.  Some other tenants lived above him.  The house was built in the 1730's and was ideally placed for a politician like Franklin.  After all, Franklin only had to walk two blocks over to Whitehall where most of the government offices were and still are.  A quarter of mile more brought him to St. James Palace where the king lived.  Buckingham Palace didn't become the Royal Residence until Queen Victoria took the throne. 

The   house experienced some hard times during the 1800's and early 1900's.  The neighborhood became a slum.  The absentee landlords let the building slide into disrepair and disrepute.  For a while a surgeon lived there and he took to discarding amputated arms and legs in the basement.  Today archaeologists are having a field day digging around in the basement.  Sometime in the 1940's a group realized that this was the last Benjamin Franklin house and set about restoring the house and setting up a Franklin research center.  Today the neighborhood looks great!  It's been restored as well.  

This is Casa Magnetica at Six Flags.  Benjamin Franklin's
House tilted almost this much!
The house looked so Georgian.  I really felt like I was walking through one of those historic homes in Virginia or Colonial Williamsburg.  I like Georgian architecture.  I like the simple elegance and the rich colors.  The trust had restored the original plank paneling and uncovered secret closets that had been covered up for decades.  They kept the beautiful original floors.  But I guess there is nothing they can do about the 300 year old foundation.  The higher up we went in the house, the more we could feel the floors slanting!  By the time we got to the top floor I felt like I was in that crazy house they use to have at Six Flags.  Casa Megnetica was built at such a crazy angle  that things appeared to roll uphill.  It felt almost that bad at the Franklin House, almost, but not quite.

Up on the top floor, they had a glass armonica.  What!?!  You don't know what that is?  It is the musical instrument that Franklin invented.  It looks like a series of glass bowls, diminishing in size, that are pierced through the center by a metal rod.  The contraption is mounted to an electric motor that spins it.  The performer dips his or her fingers into some water and lightly touches the rim of the glass bowls.  Smaller bowls make higher pitches.  We all got to play the armonica!  It had kind of a ghostly sound.  I'm sure it freaked out some of his neighbors when Ben practiced his technique on quiet evenings.

"Benjamin Franklin" and a his wife about to play
the glass armonica. 
I think I enjoyed my tour even more because two of the young women who worked at the house museum were Americans.  One had been living for London for several years and I could just hear a little American under the new British veneer.  The other girl had only been in London for six months.  She was still busily trying to work out day to day life in a somewhat foreign land.  I liked listening to their take on London and the Londoners!

This was a good way to end my day of historic and stately homes.  A serious artist, a quintessential Victorian, an aristocrat, and a Renaissance man.  They all did "something worth writing" and will not soon be forgotten.

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