The Alfred E Burk House
At the bustling modern intersection of Jefferson and Broad in North Philadelphia, a three-story green river limestone mansion reminiscent of days long gone stands tall. This building – the Alfred E. Burk Mansion at 1500 North Broad Street has stood at this location since 1907. However, since 1995 the mansion has been vacant. Although its current dormant status and public inaccessibility yields the image of a relic long past its prime, this building holds much significance, both historical and contemporary.
The house is a timeless reminder of the ways in which the community that surrounds it has changed. From the end of the Gilded Age, to the height of industrialization in Philadelphia, to the growth of Temple University, the Burk Mansion has been a witness to continual change on Broad Street. Although ownership of the house has changed hands several times and it served many purposes in its lifetime, it has always remained a significant institution in the community and an encapsulation of local history. Protection of this building from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia will not only keep this historic site from further decay, but will also assist the building owner and the community – both public and academic – in finding an appropriate use for this North Broad institution.
One of the critical arguments for the preservation of Burk Mansion is its architecture. Built in 1907 by the architectural firm Simon & Bassett at the behest of local businessman Alfred Burk, the house resembles an Italian villa of the Late Renaissance style. The construction is three stories with a raised basement that exceeds the square footage of the first floor. Furthermore, it contains twenty seven rooms and is surrounded by verdant gardens and an annex that once served as a conservatory. The centerpiece of the house was a glass dome in the roof that could be seen upon entry on the first floor. This dome is now gone, but many of the internal features are still the same or resemble those of Burk’s time.
At the back of the property is a conservatory built in the same style as the house. During Burk’s ownership the conservatory housed a lush garden. The conservatory’s large windows allowed for the plants to be viewed and enjoyed by the pedestrian passersby. The garden even included a rock garden and a cascading waterfall. The conservatory building also included a garage for Burk’s carriage and a lofted apartment for the gardener, S.J. Irvine.
Completing the Italian style villa is a green river limestone facade. The white limestone exterior gives the building clean, stark lines, while a cresting of carved architectural details crowns it. In a modern-day setting, this architectural achievement stands in contrast to the muddled facades of brick and plastic of the surrounding buildings and adds some much needed character to a street now defined by shopping plazas, high-rise towers. The house is representative of the splendour embodied by the wealthy merchants and elites of the progressive era. Furthermore, its connection to local architects Edward Simon and David Bassett, who also designed other prominent buildings in the area such as the Fidelity Building at Walnut and Broad, serves as a fine example of Philadelphian contributions to local architecture.
When the house was completed in 1907 it was one of the last mansions built on Broad Street during the post-Civil War era. Its original occupant and owner was Alfred E. Burk, the President and Director of Burk Brothers. Burk Brothers was a prominent manufacturer of glazed kid leather, but Burk himself was the subject of many other financial, political, and philanthropic pursuits in Philadelphia. Burk served as the Vice President of the Atlantic City Steel Company, a director of the Market Street National Bank, and helped run the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company. Burk also served as the president of the local Manufacturers’ Club and was the key sponsor of the local children’s hospital.
In the political arena, Burk was the brother of local congressman Henry Burk and represented this district at the 1920 Republican National Convention. Socially, Burk took part in activities within the numerous local business, ethnic, and leisure clubs that surrounded his home on Broad Street. Alfred Burk was extremely well-connected to the financial, social, and political life of Philadelphia at large and the North Broad community more specifically.
The legacy of Alfred Burk is represented physically by his former home at 1500 North Broad. The product of an immigrant family who came to the United States from a fractional Germany in the 1850s, Burk achieved financial success and community stature in North Broad where he built his home. His mansion embodies the legacy of the Progressive Era “American Dream” that affected many more besides Burk during that time of industrial and institutional expansion in Philadelphia. This house was also constructed during a time when many affluent Philadelphians were fleeing to the outskirts of the city. This is why Burk’s mansion was one of the last built on North Broad Street and represents a community leader going against the trends of his peers, and opting to remain in North Broad to operate his business, and the social, political and private spheres of his life in the community. Burk resided at 1500 North Broad Street until his death in 1921. He built his home within the community he engaged with and remained an active community leader until his death in the mansion in 1921.
Following Burk’s death, the mansion was willed to his surviving siblings Minnie, Mathieu, and Louisa Burk. By 1935, Mathieu was the last sibling of Burk’s seven brothers and sisters alive and therefore also the last beneficiary of Burk’s inheritance. According to newspaper reports, Mathieu moved out of the main house in October 1942 because it became to spacious for her. The residence remained vacant until Mathieu sold the property to the Upholsterers’ International Union (UIU) in 1945. The UIU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor – which had connections to Burk’s leather company as well as the greater Philadelphia industrial community – used the house as its local headquarters for twenty-five years. Overseen by Sal B. Hoffman, the UIU held meetings, ran educational programs, offered women’s auxiliary groups and organized union efforts at the Burk Mansion for twenty-five years.
The most obvious change to the building’s structure during UIU ownership can be seen on the exterior of the main building. In 1950, the UIU constructed a three story addition to the house. The addition, also effaced in limestone, added considerable square footage to the construction. Furthermore, the union added an elevator to the main building. Aside from these additions, changes to the structure were minimal. The UIU even continued to use the conservatory as a garden space, just as the Burk family had done.
The house changed hands again in 1971, when Temple University purchased the building from the union. Temple University was founded in 1884 but became an institution in 1907, the same year construction started on the Burk Mansion. Temple’s purchase of the property is an example of the university’s continued expansion and presence in the North Broad community. Temple and the Burk Mansion have always been neighbors and institutions in the community. In 1971, their histories became forever intertwined.
Interestingly, Temple University’s drive for expansion can also be physically seen by looking at the changing property lines of 1500 N Broad. In the transition of ownership between the UIU and Temple, the property was extended in include the adjoining property at 1510 North Broad Street. The allotment of land, that we presume nowadays to be one piece of property, consisted of two separate, as late as 1963, according to a map from that time. It is unclear the exact time this acquisition took place, but one thing is certain: the property expanded, just as Temple’s presence in the community expanded.
Under Temple’s leadership, the Alfred E. Burk Mansion became a place of convergence between the university and community. After the purchase of the building, Temple University utilized the house as the office for the School of Social Administration and Center for Social Policy and as a childcare facility. The university daycare was beloved by teachers, students and community members whose children attended the facility. Over the course of its twenty-four years of operation, the daycare taught and cared for thousands of children. The Center for Social Policy and Community Development, an arm of the School for Social Administration, offered several programs at the Burk Mansion that benefited members of the surrounding community, including education programs and job training for welfare recipients.
In 1993, the accidental explosion of an air conditioner unit caused some damage to the main building at 1500 North Broad. As a result of the damage, the university moved the School of Social Administration to another building on campus. The daycare continued to operate in the building until the university closed it down in 1995 as a part of a university wide budget cut.
Temple executive vice president James White announced the closure of the daycare in June of 1995. Set to close just one month later, the decision was met with substantial resistance from employees and parents who fought against Temple’s decision. Holding protests and rallies that summer, employees and parents fought to keep the daycare open and to keep the daycare at the Burk Mansion. Four students with children at the daycare even filed an injunction with the Superior Court claiming Temple violated a contractual agreement by taking away their childcare, but these fights only sustained the daycare for another month. On August 2, 1995, the court denied the injunction and the Temple daycare officially closed.
Since that day in August of 1995, the Burk Mansion has stood empty. While still owned and maintained by Temple, the management of the property and the building has been minimal. However, this is not to say that the building has ceased being significant. This building has a history important to both the institution that currently owns it and the wider community of North Philadelphia. From the ownership of Alfred Burk to the operation of Temple’s daycare, the Burk Mansion stands as a historical site with “multiple truths” whose complexity make the site meaningful to many different people. These truths not only exist in those with past ties to the site, but are housed within the mansion complex itself, and therefore, gives this location an important and unique status as a place of convergence between multiple facets of the North Broad community.
The history of the building’s use demonstrates that the Burk Mansion has served different individual, institutional, and community needs. As a result, the occupants of the property have a combination of shared and distinct memories and experiences that make it fit what scholar Dolores Hayden has termed as “place.” The house is not just a space to be admired for its grandiose architecture or its namesake, but is a “place” that has many different meanings affiliated with it. These meanings can be traced to the most contemporary – that of those who used the daycare and were affected by its closure – and to the more historical –being those involved with the Upholsters’ union and the Burk family. Despite its recent dormant status, this building thrived throughout the majority of the twentieth century as an active center for business, education, and childcare. In this, the building’s adaptability is on display, which not only opens up its historical significance to include many different groups of people, but serves as evidence to the mansion’s further utility if preservation is maintained.
A careful analysis of sources outlining the makeup of North Broad during the building’s early history indicates how the area surrounding this house is drastically different from what a cursory look at the current neighbourhood would yield. The Bromley and Co. Insurance Maps of 1905-1922, housed at Temple’s Special Collections Resource Center, reveal that the Burk Mansion was once situated at the heart of a vibrant neighbourhood marked by various religious, ethnic, and economic institutions – several of which the building’s namesake participated in. Working in this neighbourhood currently, the fabric of the community has drastically changed. Temple University (who owns yet vacated the building) has extended itself down Broad Street, modern businesses dot the landscape of what once was social clubs and churches, and the residential makeup looks depleted in comparison to the maps of the area from nearly a century ago. However, the Burk Mansion still stands in its original location – a testament to the building’s resilience and significance in an ever changing cultural and physical landscape. Preservation of this building would ensure that the decay of the former vivacious North Broad community does not perpetuate.
The building’s future utility also lends credence to its need for preservation. The exterior of the main building looks to be in excellent condition, and save for several unstable parts of the flooring and an apparent issue with mold growth, the interior of the building is intact and habitable. In addition, the annex is still functional with very little evidence of decay. These factors speak to how the building can be repurposed into a functional space and should not be considered an old relic suited for demolition or neglect.
We want to see Burk Mansion become a place of convergence once again between institution and community. We imagine the future of the Burk Mansion as a multi-purpose building with open access for the Temple University students, as well as the wider public. The additions to the property, like the UIU’s add-on and the acquisition of the 1510 North Broad plot, have increased the space for potential uses. The main building will be the main site of convergence. Temple could have a local coffee shop and a lending library, an inviting space for students and members of the community to connect. This space could also house an exhibition space featuring the history of the property or rotating exhibits on the history and culture of the surrounding community. Showcasing the local history keeps the history of the building and the constantly changing North Broad community alive. The add-on could be used for offices and rooms where university groups or classes could meet. This space could also be open to community groups. We also envision using the green space where 1510 North Broad once stood as a place for a community garden, a place of collaboration and for giving back to the local community. The conservatory could serve as the location of a microbrewery. Temple already provides an on-campus bar, and sites like this provide a safe space for students to socialize on campus.
Not all of these ideas, we realize, would be met, but the possibility of such uses it what is important. Throughout its rich history, Burk Mansion has served multiple uses – a legacy that should continue with the site’s purpose moving forward. These plausible and constructive potential uses of the building, in conjunction with its history and architecture, serve as testaments to the building’s significance as a site worthy of preservation with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
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