Ben Franklin’s grave’s all cracked and broken. But don’t blame the pennies.
Earlier this month, the Christ Church Preservation Fund launched a GoFundMe for much-needed repairs to Ben Franklin’s gravesite, at the corner of 5th and Arch streets in Old City. The church had already raised thousands for repairs, mostly in grants from Florence Gould Foundation and PHMC Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, but said it needed $10,000 more to put it over the top. With the help of a $5,000 donation from Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea — as well as a grand from the Eagles — the GoFundMe has met its goal.
“The narrative definitely switched from ‘Ben Franklin’s grave needs repairs’ to the headline, ‘Bon Jovi saves Ben Franklin’s grave,’” says Carrie Hagen, who does marketing and development for the Christ Church Preservation Trust. “It was just a feel-good Philadelphia moment … it’s harder and harder to find funds for historical preservation work. And I’m trying not to say something corny, but this rocked our world for sure.”
Franklin’s gravesite — which also features his wife, Deborah, and assorted Franklin family members — has a large crack down the center of it. The GoFundMe blamed the pitting of the marble surface on the tradition of throwing pennies on Franklin’s grave, which goes back decades. (Franklin allegedly said “a penny saved is a penny earned,” but as with many Franklin sayings, that usage is without attribution. Apparently, tourists cannot be convinced to throw $100 bills on Franklin’s gravesite.)
But according to John Carr, owner of Materials Conservation, the problem isn’t really the pennies.
“The pennies aren’t actually causing any of this cracking,” says Carr, whose firm will be handling the restoration of Franklin’s gravesite. “The difficulty is when people go by and night and they try to collect the pennies from outside the fence. A lot more of the scratching and abrasion to the surface of the marble comes from folks trying to pull the pennies.” Carr says people have used every object imaginable to take pennies from Franklin’s grave. When I suggested a hockey stick, he replied: “Curtain rod.”
Materials Conservation, a local firm that has done restorations on a number of historical sites in Philadelphia, has worked with Christ Church for about two decades. The real reason for the crack across Franklin’s gravesite is due to a renovation to the grave likely done sometime in the 1950s, according to burial ground and tourism manager John Hopkins. The marble stone currently sits in a granite base. Most likely, that’s causing moisture to pool under the granite — causing the ever-widening crack across his gravestone.
“Our intervention is to keep the historic configuration, but make some modification so that the marble isn’t sitting in a granite bowl,” says Carr. “The two materials kind of work in tandem, but the granite is less porous. The base is actually faring better than the marker. We want to make some changes to that kind of construction so that it respects its history and we don’t make significant alterations so the marble can dry out. … We’re going to bridge the cracking. We have to pull the stone up and treat it from the backside. Then we’ll re-set it in a way that the whole construction can drain.”
According to Carr, Materials Conservation will completely repair the crack and prevent it from growing any more. You’ll likely be able to tell there was a crack there previously, but it will be fixed. Ben Franklin’s gravesite isn’t becoming the Liberty Bell. The firm will also repair several cracks in the corner of Franklin’s gravesite, as well as other minor touchups.
The Christ Church Preservation Trust says it’s hoping to complete the restoration of Franklin’s grave over the winter. But what of the tradition of throwing pennies? While it’s not the source of the crack, it is kind of weird. “We don’t let anyone touch any other stone,” Hopkins, the caretaker, says. “Touching any marker in there, you just take a little bit off of it.”
But Hopkins agrees that leaving a penny at Franklin’s grave is a cool tradition, even if it’s strange. There’s no archival evidence of when it started at Christ Church, but it goes back decades. While restoring another grave marker nearby, Carr says workers found three bags of pennies buried in the ground from the 1970s. It goes back decades.
“It’s a tradition and you can’t kill a tradition,” Hopkins says. “People want to connect with Franklin. He was a man of the people, and tossing pennies is a way for them to leave something in remembrance.” Plus, all that money collected on his grave goes to Christ Church. The preservation trust doesn’t count on it to keep the heat on at the church, but every little bit counts.
But Christ Church is hoping to alter the tradition a little bit. While they’re not sure yet just how they’re going to do it, the idea is to get more people inside the burial ground. In addition to Franklin, it features four other signers of the Declaration of Independence — as well as about 1,400 other markers.
“If we could do it another way and pay respect to Franklin without mindlessly tossing coins on there,” Hopkins says. “Because that’s all that people ever know. They come by and just throw a penny for good luck, and they leave. As a historian, that’s the thing that gets to me.”
Joshua Silver, a tour guide at the Christ Church burial ground, agrees: “If they’re outside here especially, they’re saying, ‘I’ve seen what I want to see.’ But there’s much more than Ben Franklin.”
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