Ben Franklin’s Underground Experience

Last week, wide-eyed country boy Arnie, jaded urbanite Matt, and wizened history-learner I made a trip to Philadelphia.  For me, the trip was part of my annual Northern Regions series of vacations, year-end being the only time I can get away from law school (and northern cities being the places I am dumb enough to want to visit in sub-freezing weather).

Now, Philadelphia is a great place to visit if you’re into history (although it does have other things, like good restaurants, quaint old buildings, and a stock exchange).  I wanted to see some historical sites, so on the advice of my friend Marc, we visited Franklin Court and its underground museum.  (Did anybody else think of the awesome coal mine at the old COSI when I mentioned “underground museum?” Alas.)

Lay of the land

Sign on Market Street, Philadelphia, reading 'To Let, B. Franklin, Inquire Within'

Come on in and experience Franklin Court!  Note, the sign says “TO LET,” not “TOILET.”  (Although in fairness, because the privies have been dug up and marked, you will see, in the words of one web author, “where Ben Franklin pooped.”)  Franklin Court, we learnt, is the name for the courtyard and group of buildings where Ben did some living and working.  On the site is a working federal post office where the employees completely ignored us, a tiny bookshop, and the star attraction, the underground museum.

Franklin Court, Philadelphia, and its wireframe buildings
The courtyard, including the wireframe houses

It turns out that Ben Franklin’s relatives tore down his house about twenty years after he died so they could build some kind of commercial structure, so it no longer exists.  (How do you like that?  Even the Paul Revere house is still standing, and all he did was ride!)  But the size and shape of the house was discerned somehow and 20th-century historians have put up these life-sized wireframes of Ben Franklin’s house (and another house which I don’t remember what it is).

The courtyard photo I took is from the vantage point of the underground museum, which unfortunately, I didn’t photograph.  However, it’s just an ugly brick rectangle so you’re not missing anything.

Into the deep

Leading up from Franklin Court’s underground museum, Philadelphia
Ben died here, of architectural banality

To gain access to the museum, you have to go down a series of tiled passages like this one.  My flash wouldn’t have illuminated the whole thing, but there were three extremely long ramps leading down into the bowels of the museum.  My fellow travelers said it reminded them of high school, but I’m certain that the style is after any 1972 Boston subway station.

Once you make your way into the bowels of the museum, you come into a vaguely federal-looking lobby attended by a shabby desk and shabby guard.  Because the guard left his post for a minute, I felt there was a chance for us to sneak into the museum for free and made an excited utterance urging my fellow federales to slip past the desk!  However, after completing the tour of the underground museum, you will see that no crime could have been committed: no one could, in good conscience, possibly charge for admission, so I hope to God it’s actually free.

Entering the exhibits themselves led past a roomful of Olde Thinges including an admittedly cool-looking “armonica” (or was it “harmonica?” -- both spellings were used), which was a sit-down musical instrument invented by Ben Franklin and essentially a cross between a big lathe and running your fingers around the rim of a wineglass.  Arnie joked that we should plug it in; weirdly, we then realized it was plugged in.  Also of note in this room: a painting of Ben’s bastard son, William Franklin.  (My namesake?)  Old Bill became governor of New Jersey, just like James McGreevey!  Unfortunately, because he was a royalist loyalist, after the revolution Bill and Ben never spoke again.  I was still taking the museum seriously at this point, so I don’t have any photos -- I didn’t want my flash to affect anything historically significant.  Read on.

The mirror and neon room at Franklin Court's underground museum, Philadelphia
The hall of mirrors and labels, as dramatized
by Matt’s carefree pose

Through the looking glass

Now it gets weird.

You turn the corner past the armonica and immediately find yourself in a mirrored room.  Neon signs above you flash, in various colors, the many faces of Franklin.  Citizen, scientist, printer, ... trippy weirdo.  Mirrors and neon are a decidely disorienting combination and, I’m sure, not ADA-compliant: a lesser man than Franklin might well have failed to escape this chamber of horrors.  Our eyes crimson with accomplishment and argon, we were simultaneously aghast and in awe.  Big Brother is watching you was the only phrase flashing through my head.  Fortunately, one of us shambled toward the exit, and we were soon out of the Saturnalian netherworld of Ben’s resume and into an equally bizarre place.

The field of telephones at Franklin Court's underground museum, Philadelphia
The field of phones.  If you install it, they will call

The next thing we came across was a field of identical telephones.  (These are not Franklin’s actual phones, but mere replicas.)  This photo does not do justice to the scene.  This is a bank of identical, equally-spaced cheap phones mysteriously mounted on demure pedestals, in front of a giant “phone directory” of all the subscriber to the “Franklin Exchange.”  What?  A sign informs us that if Ben Franklin were alive, he most certainly would be using the telephone to communicate with his buddies.  (And not the Internet.)  The visitor is supposed to look up the phone number of a famous historical person and call that person.  Then the caller is treated to a nasal, queeny rendition of the person saying something about Ben Franklin.  Naturally, I called D. H. Lawrence for his undoubtedly titillating opinion.

Bill Cash making a phone call at Franklin Court's underground museum, Philadelphia
A concerned citizen seeks the assessment of
one of Franklin’s contemporaries

As a student of absurdity, I clearly had hit a gold mine.  First of all, did they really need forty phones?  There were maybe fifteen people in the whole place, and they weren’t all clamoring to call Horace Greeley at the same time.  (I envisioned a hellish crush of tourists fighting for the liberty of making calls.)  Further, you could tell the designer of this telephonic monstrosity had taken it extremely seriously, because each person you called had to be dialed including the correct U.S. area code and sometimes the country code -- so when you called Andrew Mellon, you actually had to dial 412-789-7084.  However, unsatisfyingly, there was no need to dial a 1 before the area code, and the designer failed to anticipate metro dialing because the local Philadelphia numbers didn’t include the 215 area code.  These were real numbers, but they apparently were wholly made up or no longer corresponded to the historical places you might be calling.  (We tested this: apologies to the lady in New York we hung up on.)  Finally, the best part about this was that even though they were push-button phones, they were all set to pulse dialing.  Talk about 18th century!  It took forever to get Lord Byron on the horn.

Other oddities

Matt Studer inspecting the Ben Franklin quotations list
Choose your subject...
Matt Studer's hand
...then wonder where the keypad went

The rest of the museum had other exhibits that were disappointingly less interactive.  Here we find a directory of Franklin quotations that could be dialed up on the computer and displayed on what appeared to be a 1976 Magnavox TV.  Fair enough.  But when you had carefully chosen your subject’s code number, there was no place to type it in.  The keypad had been replaced by a smooth piece of wood.  No sign explained this.  The only screen still working was stuck on some quote about vegetables.

The talking government figures display at Franklin Court's underground museum, Philadelphia
The weeble-wobble version of colonial history

In the center of the room was a large pit with a bunch of little troll dolls in it.  Oh, wait, they were tiny little colonial guys or something.  A large canopy promised that we would see up four different scenes describing Franklin’s role in various affaires d’histoire.  Each scene was numbered and explained.  But the little pit itself lay extremely dark and silent.  (I’m not kidding about the dark.  You’d think an underground museum would know to do something to counteract the Boston subway gloom.)  We walked around, looking for a button to push to get the thing started, but having learned our lesson on the quotations thing, we didn’t get our hopes up.  It looked hopeless, until some guy in a uniform walked out of a secret door.  (I think he turned it on for us.)

Then the little people began lighting up and animatedly arguing with each other!  The Stamp Act is crushing the colonies!  I expected a little dancing and walking around in there, but why?  Apparently, it was enough for them to just play a tape of yet more pompous actors bickering and having various lights flash on and off depending on who was talking.  It felt more like a crummy Shakespeare-in-the-park production than any historical event.  You could still barely see what was going on because it was so dark (click here for the really dark video I took).  I took this photo and discovered, to my great surprise, that the actors were wearing colored little clothes.  Immediately, I thought of X the Owl and that mean drunken gypsy lady, Lady Elaine Fairchild, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (the doll scenes that used to really freak me out).  You can see Ben in a defiantly red overcoat near the center of the photo.

Old documents
Some old stuff

In fairness to the museum, I’ve included the photo at right, which is various maps, newspapers, deeds, and documents from the past.  However, even though it’s historical documents, I have no doubt they also managed to somehow be out of date.

It’s movie time!

In all the promotional literature and web sites for the museum, I’ve continued to notice that some 18-minute movie is prominently featured, when I thought the real draw would be the fact that you are standing on or under the actual place where so much history happened.  The focus on this film makes sense now, of course, given the quality of the other exhibits.  And so we decided we simply must see it.

The sign for the movie at Franklin Court's underground museum, Philadelphia
The waiting area for the movie

You have to sit along this slanty hallway on these specially-built benches (more ramps!) waiting for the film to start.  Even the signboard was dark; we anxiously waited for it to count the minutes down (it went 3, 2, 1, 0, then 00 -- ?).  (Disappointingly, the board never flashed “Please Enter” even though we could read that on the sign.)  When we were unceremoniously allowed into the movie theatre, the underwhelmingness was palpable.  Surely, the big movie would outperform everything else we’d seen -- and the bar was set rather low.  Despite the cheap take-me-out-to-the-ballgame-style metal seats, the movie probably really was the best part of the experience.  It was narrated by some History Channel guy, and I surreptitiously captured this short clip in case you want to feel like you’re there.  Movie bonus: some guy in a tricornered hat demonstrates the correct way to play the armonica.


My advice for visitors to Philadelphia about the Franklin Court Underground Museum is mixed.  If you want to save time, I’m probably showing you the highlights, and there is nothing you’ll learn that you can’t see at the currently-running Ben Franklin exhibit over at the National Constitution Center.  Plus, the Constitution Center has lights.  However, if you want to really experience the bank of phones (strangely not sponsored by the Bell System), you’ll have to go in person and see it for yourself.