Ben Franklin's been kidnapped. Or, more precisely, heisted. And by whom? By the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.
For over 90 years, from 1889 until a few days ago, Ben has stood at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street in a little triangle of pavement, appearing to wave his right hand at all those who pass him by -- presidents and protesters, tourists and townsfolk.
He was carved of marble by Jacques Jouvenal, who depicted him in the diplomatic dress he wore as the American minister to the Court of Louis XVI at Versailes. It was in that phase of his multifaceted career that the canny Pennsylvanian courted and won the critically important support of France in the War of Independence.
But it was diplomacy that put Ben on the avenue. You have to consider who was responsible for the statue. As it is inscribed on the base, his statue was "presented to the National Capital by Stilson Hutchins." Back in 1889, Hutchins needed no further identification. He had founded The Washington Post in 1877 and sold it in January 1889, proceeding to make a fortune from the invention of the Linotype and investments in Washington real estate.
I don't know whether it was Hutchins who was responsible for the statue's location, but at the time it was placed at 10th and the avenue it stood, as you looked at it, in front of the front door of The Post's third home, at the corner of 10th and D streets. Hutchins himself had erected that building in 1880, and it remained The Post's home until 1893, when the paper moved to E Street, between the National Theatre and the Willard, leaving old Ben behind.
The old 10th and D Post building finally fell to the wreckers, and a block of D Street itself disappeared, prior to construction of the massive and monstrous FBI building. The only thing saved was a big chunk of stone with "The Daily Post" carved into it, visible above Ben's head in old photos. That stone was carted up to L Street, whence The Post migrated in 1950, where it was duly photographed with the publisher and thereupon disappeared.
So it is entirely logical that of the four one-word inscriptions on the base of the Franklin statue, the one on the front below his name is "Printer." Ben, of course, was a publisher of newspapers and of his famous Poor Richard's Almanack, but he had begun his life's work as a printer. On one side the statue is inscribed "Philospher," on the other "Philanthropist," on the back "Patriot." He was all of these and far more.
Ben's statue had become, for me, one of the enduring landmarks of the ever-changing Pennsylvania Avenue scene. So the other day, driving toward the White House from the Capitol, I glanced to the right to take a look -- and he was gone! From the mangled look of the pavement, he had been uprooted in the dark of night. It clearly was a heist.But I had barely swallowed hard before I spotted my old friend on the other side of the avenue, still waving and looking as placid as ever.
He had been moved to the southwest corner of 12th and the avenue, and plumped down in front of the newly refurbished "old" Post Office Building. All of the old statue now rests on an additional circular base, which has boosted him up a bit but is quite attractive to the eye. There are even circular spots nearby made ready for a couple of trees. I suppose this move can be justified on the grounds that Franklin served as deputy postmaster general in colonial times (1753-74) when he was said to have "reorganized the postal system, making it both efficient and profitable" and, in 1775 by vote of the Continental Congress, as postmaster general. Less than a year later he signed the Declaration of Independence. He was truly a man for all seasons.
Ben's move by the PADC is just part of the fix-up of the grand avenue. The sidewalk around him, as elsewhere at the western end of the avenue, has been changed from cold concrete to warmer tones of brick blocks and squares. Although much remains to be done, the avenue's face will shine far better for the coming inaugural parade than it has in many a quadrennium.
Next Jan. 20, if he should spot old Ben as he rides back to the White House from the ceremonies at the Capitol, Ronald Reagan might even hear Franklin uttering a few of his gems from the Almanack:
"There are no gains without pains."
"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
"Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today."
"Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship."
"If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some!"