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Editorial: Franklin Court

Left high, but not dry

More-mundane relics greet tourists to Franklin Court museum, including a bucket to collect water from leaks.
More-mundane relics greet tourists to Franklin Court museum, including a bucket to collect water from leaks.Read moreJOHN COSTELLO / Staff Photographer

Ever-inventive Benjamin Franklin understood the simple ingenuity of using a bucket to catch rainwater. So maybe he would have appreciated employing that make-do approach to handle leaks at Philadelphia's bicentennial-era museum named in his honor.

But it's a short-term solution to one of the Franklin Court museum's myriad maintenance woes, and commendable only if it helps buy time to rescue the Old City facility from years of neglect and decline.

Franklin Court needs to be updated from stem to stern. After three decades of heavy visitor traffic, the museum is more an embarrassment than a tribute to the famous Philadelphian's memory.

As a recent tour illustrated, the National Park Service museum's exhibits are dated and worn, some darkened. But a planned $18 million transformation would again make the museum a must-see attraction, with re-created rooms from Franklin's house, a gift shop, and cafe.

It's hard to believe that only a federal appropriation of $6 million stands between launching this state-of-the-art makeover of the museum off Market Street near Fourth, where Franklin's home once stood.

That has to be one of the most easily affordable federal bailouts on the drawing board these days.

With this project, federal taxpayers wouldn't even do the heaviest lifting, either. Thanks to an unusual public-private partnership, federal funding would be matched almost 2-to-1 by philanthropic donations, all lined up over the past two years by the Pew Charitable Trusts. A plan to charge a nominal admission fee to the renovated museum would offset museum operating costs as well.

Even in tough economic times, restoring Franklin Court would be a worthwhile investment in what could be considered the infrastructure of the city's historic tourism trade. That's why Gov. Rendell has pledged $2 million in state funds.

The makeover certainly fits well into the 10-year "Centennial Challenge" initiative by the Bush administration to leverage scarce federal dollars for signature park projects. And National Park Service director Mary A. Bomar, the former superintendent at Independence National Historical Park, strongly supports the project.

The challenge now is to bring this project to the attention of congressional appropriators, who so far have not freed up funding.

The clock is ticking on the outgoing administration, and private donors cannot be expected to keep their pledges on hold indefinitely.

Park Service officials vow to keep Franklin Court "patched together," but the next flood or mishap could shutter the museum for good. At that point, Franklin's advice - "when the well's dry, we know the worth of water" - won't be much comfort.