1500 N. Broad Statement of Significance

1500 N. Broad Street, known as the Alfred Burk House, is one of the last mansions of the Philadelphia North Broad Street Mansion District still standing. Designed by Simon and Bassett and constructed in 1907 by John Gill and Company, the building serves as an example of Late Urban Italian Renaissance style architecture. Burk’s mansion cost $256,000 to construct on the former estate of Joseph Singerly. The three-story structure’s limestone ashlar three-bay front facade faces Broad Street on the east, while a grand conservatory borders Carlisle Street on the west, sheltering the plentiful grounds and green spaces in the lot’s interior. Architect Edward P. Simon had a reputation from his work at Simon and Caldwell, and was a product of Drexel University’s School of Architecture. David B. Bassett came from a fine arts background and served as a unique partner. Their firm later helped to build the Oak Lane Park Building in 1908, the Manufacturers Club (a club that Burk visited regularly) in 1911, the Garden Pier in Atlantic City in 1912, as well as a number of police stations, fire houses, and city government buildings throughout Philadelphia. Simon and Bassett designed several other prominent buildings in Philadelphia, including the Fidelity Building at Broad and Walnut Streets and the Strawbridge and Clothier Building at Eighth and Market Streets. 1500 N. Broad Street was the first of many contributions the Simon and Bassett firm made to the area.

Alfred E. Burk rooted his estate deeply in its North Broad Neighborhood, a representation of his monetary and social capital. The property was used for private and business causes alike, as a showcase of his wealth, power and networks. A two-part structure, including a conservatory and annex, was built at the eastern end of the property during Burk’s time. It shares the architectural heritage of the main building but differs in its interior. The structure originally housed an indoor garden and had huge plate windows which allowed people from the street to gaze inside. A 1934 article from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin ran a story about the conservatory garden space and how the public “shared” that space.

Alfred Burk

David and Charlotte Reinman Burk emigrated to the United States from Knittlingen, Wurttemberg, Germany in 1854. The Burk Brothers built a leather manufacturing empire, specializing in processing kidskins into morocco, or glazed kid leather. Alfred, together with his older brothers Henry (1850–1903) and Charles (1856–1916), became one of Philadelphia’s largest and most successful producers of leather products throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Philadelphia held the leading position in the production of morocco leather and other kid leather products in the United States, in a time when the processing and the manufacturing of leather products was the nation’s fifth largest category of industry. Burk Brothers and Company employed an estimated 700 to several thousand employees in 1903. Furthermore, Henry Burk developed two new processes that revolutionized the production of kid leather worldwide, allowing a drastic decrease of production time while significantly increasing the product’s quality.

In addition to leather manufacturing, Alfred E. Burk also developed and co-owned the Garden Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey with his brother Louis Burk and was the vice-president of the Atlantic City Steel Pier Company.  He also was a director at the Market Street National Bank, the Continental Equitable Title and Trust Company, the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, Philadelphian Manufacturers Club, Pier Holding Company, and Bridge Commission. Burk was socially engaged with a number of local clubs, including the Philadelphia Yacht Club, Egypt Mills Club and the Columbia Club. Burk was also a local philanthropist who donated generously to various charities and was also a key sponsor and director of the board of the Children’s Homeopathic Hospital.

The Burk family was a political powerhouse. Alfred’s brother Henry was a congressman. Alfred Burk counted Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore as a close friend. After Moore’s election to the mayorship, he wanted Burk to be his successor as Republican congressman.  Burk declined, but he did serve as the representative for Pennsylvania at the 1920 Republican National Convention. Although Alfred Burk never ran for a major political office because of his private interests and rich business activities, it is evident that he was very well connected to the most powerful circles of Philadelphia’s economic and political elites.

Alfred Burk used the mansion as his home and office from 1909 until his death in 1921. As one of the last remaining Gilded Age Era mansions left in Philadelphia, 1500 N. Broad Street serves as a symbol of the unconstrained consumption of wealth by entrepreneurs. Burk died in his home in 1921 and had his funeral held there. He left no descendants and bequeathed the 1.7 million dollar estate to his remaining siblings. His last surviving sister, the widowed Mrs. P. N. Mathieu, moved to Wyncote, PA in 1942. Rather than continue the burden of caring for the 25 empty rooms, Mrs. Mathieu decided to sell the estate in 1945 to the Upholsterers’ International Union.

Upholsterers’ International Union

The UIU bought the Burk Mansion in 1945 for $50,000 and used the property as their headquarters until 1975.  From this lot in North Philadelphia, the UIU under executive Sal B. Hoffman directed all of its international operations, including women’s auxiliaries and extensive labor welfare programs. UIU membership grew rapidly between 1945 and 1955. Thanks in part to this growth as a neighborhood and citywide institution, in 1953 architect Louis A. Manfredi was contracted to build a three story stud-frame addition with limestone ashlar curtain walls on the north side of the building. Manfred also added a number of new office spaces to the interior.

A high membership often means a relatively successful union with cash liquidity. For example, the Bulletin ran a story on December 10th, 1947 headlined “Union to Erect $500,000 Building” that detailed the UIU-funded housing project being built in Philadelphia. Hoffman cited “a great need in this city and throughout the Nation for adequate housing…Not only do we recognize that the construction of such an apartment building is a sound investment for future income, but we believe that it will create greater good will between the general public and unions.” In addition to this ambitious housing project, UIU offered upholstery training programs for GIs at several locals around the city. The UIU made good on its welfare promises, with three members receiving the first pensions from the union in 1955. The UIU headquarters served as an institution for the surrounding neighborhood as well as the greater Philadelphia area.   

Growth within a finite space like the Burk Mansion and the north Broad neighborhood created new problems for the UIU. On March 14th, 1968 the Bulletin quoted Hoffman saying that the union headquarters felt “cramped” in Burk Mansion.  No wonder, considering that the headquarters employed close to 200 people. The article also quoted Edward Toohey, then council president of the AFL-CIO, saying that the “old Burk Mansion” was “due for demolition and the site will be used for Temple University expansion plans.” In 1971 Temple University purchased the Burk House from the union, but in the years between 1968 and 1971, the Preservation Society added the building to its list of historical spaces and would require approval from the city for demolition.

Temple’s School of Social Administration and Daycare

Temple housed its School of Social Administration and its on-campus daycare, as well as other community programs, in all of the structures at 1500 N. Broad. Rooms in the conservatory still contain remnants of the daycare, which was shut down in 1995, officially for budget cuts. An electrical fire caused minor damage to the original three-story structure in 1993, and Temple has undertaken a number of repairs since it vacated the property two years later.

Previously housed in Mitten Hall, Temple’s on-campus daycare was moved to 1500 N. Broad, specifically in the annex space. Based on interviews with Temple officials, the daycare was initially very successful and expanded to encompass the entire property including not only the annex, but also the conservatory and the original building. Temple students and faculty, as well as residents from the neighborhood enrolled their children in the booming program. In 1993, an appliance explosion in the original building caused an electrical fire that injured four people. Two years later, in June 1995, Temple announced its plans to shut down the daycare program. Employees of the daycare and parents of enrolled children, many of them Temple students, protested the closing. Four Temple students brought an injunction to the County Pleas Court in an attempt to stop the closing. The plea ultimately failed in court, but was a testament to the level of community services the daycare provided at this historic space of 1500 N. Broad Street. The daycare closed in August of 1995.

Temple’s Vacancy

From the official closing of the daycare in 1995 until today, 1500 N. Broad has gone through a period of vacancy and neglect. Temple University has not made any significant effort to revitalize, or even to maintain, the space. As a result, the exterior and interior has fallen into disrepair, albeit salvageable. Without the historic site status of the space, it is likely that a wholly different complex would exist at the property. Temple revealed its intention to demolish the property in 1968, before the purchase was even completed. Indeed, the university has undertaken demolition by neglect since its closure of the daycare. Temple has bought up properties and aggressively expanded in the North Philadelphia neighborhood since the 1990s. Without the site’s protection, 1500 N. Broad Street would likely today be another victim of this pattern. The significance of 1500 N. Broad necessitates not merely its existence, but a reinvigoration of its historical heritage to the neighborhood and greater Philadelphia area.

Future

Almost every building that once contributed to the North Broad Mansion District is gone today. 1500 N. Broad Street is almost everything that remains as a reminder of the Gilded Age in this part of Philadelphia and the development that shaped it and was strongly intertwined with the industrial development of the city, the region, and the nation as a whole. The property’s modifications bear witness to the evolution of the North Philadelphia neighborhood that surrounds it. Its unlikely development – from the home and office of an industrial entrepreneur, to the headquarters of a working class organization and finally an even more public service-oriented institution as a place of scholarship, higher education and education for children in the first two decades of Temple University ownership – marks and mirrors Philadelphia’s path to the postindustrial city it has become today.

Given the history of the building, the Alfred E. Burk House symbolizes the change and continuity in North Philadelphia over the past several decades and is worth preserving for future generations.  Because the mansion is one of the last remaining mansions belonging to the North Broad Mansion District, the exterior profile and integrity of the property should be preserved. Given that the exterior of the building is in excellent condition, it would not be unreasonable to repurpose the interiors of the mansion and conservatory on the property to fit the needs of current ownership. This repurposing would require a preservation of the space, and would represent a preservation of the spirit of community interaction, service, and a commitment to the public good that the occupants of the property displayed over the past century. The grounds offer a wealth of green space potential, and could be used along with the conservatory for myriad related purposes: a community garden, greenhouse, or hydroponics educational space, for example. With a careful, thoughtful process and the involvement of the surrounding neighborhood, the preserved exterior architectural profile of 1500 North Broad would stand out as a place of community history and would make an excellent place to allow students and neighborhood residents to interact with the history of Philadelphia.  

No matter what future function or purpose the building serves, the mansion could house interpretive signage describing the history of the building.  This would provide an opportunity for community members to find answers to questions about the history of a building that has been closed to the public for so long. After all, 1500 N. Broad Street is not just a lot in North Philadelphia, but a story, and the original house, grounds, addition, and conservatory are both setting and characters in it. One hopes that the time will soon come that another, happier chapter might be added to its pages – but only after ensuring that the existing story is not erased.

The Burk Mansion in the News: A Union Story (and a revealing piece of evidence!)

We’re back in the archives! Another trip to the Special Collections Research Center in the basement of Temple’s Paley Library produced more information on the history of the Burk Mansion. Specifically, I examined newspaper clippings from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The Upholsterers’ International Union (UIU) bought the Burk Mansion from Minnie Burk in 1945 for $50,000 and used the property as their headquarters until 1975. I was initially disappointed at the size of the clippings folder presented to me by the archivist. The dilapidated holding device was no bigger than a wallet. However, when I delved through the contents I realized the density of the collection. That small folder must have held close to 100 clippings from 1940 to 1980. Now the problem became how to organize and identify exactly what I was looking for.

I have some experience sorting through historical archives. As a PhD student in History, this is an incredibly important skill. Efficiency is often just as important as analysis. Generally, you want to go to the archive with a specific theme, question, or concept in mind while sorting through boxes of material. Although, any good historian will tell you that being open to finding new themes, formulating new questions, or finding answers to questions that trouble you is part of the job and should be welcomed. On this particular day, I really didn’t have a goal in mind, so I just started reading.

Two interconnected patterns I discovered while examining the clippings. The first being a high frequency of stories form the time-periods of 1945-1955 and 1962-1968. The former had a common theme of development while the latter frequently discussed the union’s desire to move out of the Burk Mansion.

Not only was the UIU membership growing from 1945-1955, but also its viability as a neighborhood and citywide institution grew. A high membership often means a relatively successful union with cash liquidity. For example, the Bulletin ran a story on December 10th, 1947 headlined “Union to Erect $500,000 Building” that detailed the UIU funded housing project being built in Philadelphia. Sal B. Hoffman, then acting executive of the UIU, justified their action as satisfying “a great need in this city and throughout the Nation for adequate housing…Not only do we recognize that the construction of such an apartment building is a sound investment for future income, but we believe that it will create greater good will between the general public and unions.” Another article dated January 28th, 1951 detailed how the UIU was offering upholstery training programs for GI’s at several locals around the city. Finally, an article ran on January 8th, 1955 highlighting how three UIU members received the first pensions from their union, which consisted of $50 to $60 dollars a month ($470 – $565 in today’s dollars). From these articles, we can safely assume that the UIU was successful financially as well as institutionally.

Growth within a finite space like the Burk Mansion and the north Broad neighborhood created new problems for the UIU. An article published on May 6th, 1962 detailed the UIU retirement community in Salhaven, Florida (worth close to $10 million in 1962 dollars or $83.5 million in today’s dollars) and how the union was considering moving their headquarters to that location. Nothing seemed to emerge about the desire to move until six years later on March 14th, 1968 when the Bulletin quoted Hoffman saying that the union headquarters felt “cramped” in Burk Mansion. No wonder, considering that the headquarters employed close to 200 people. The article also quoted Edward Toohey, then council president of the AFL-CIO, saying that the “old Burk Mansion” was “due for demolition and the site will be used for Temple University expansion plans.” This was an incredible find! Up to this point in the research, all evidence that mentioned Temple’s procurement of the property in 1970 from the UIU did not mention their intention to demolish the site. This changes Temple’s historical motive for buying the property, and the importance of the Preservation Society for adding the building to the list of historical spaces–requiring approval from the city for demolition.

I walked into the archive not knowing what to expect. I left with a much clearer understanding of the UIU’s development while occupying the 1500 n. Broad property and the original motivations behind Temple’s acquisition.

Alfred Burk’s Neighborhood: 1922 to Now

On my trip to the Temple University Special Collections Research Center the outstanding archivist Margery Sly found a 1922 Bromley Company neighborhood map of the Burk Mansion block. The picture below is the east side of that block with the Burk Mansion plot near the middle-right of the picture titled “Alfred E. Burke.” The “e” at the end of his name, I believe, is a typo on the part of the Bromley Company considering all of the other documents related to Mr. Burk don’t apply the ending vowel. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say that this was indeed the same plot now located at 1500 N. Broad. Looking at the block that runs between Carlisle Street and Broad Street on the right side of the image, I immediately wanted to find the extravagant red brick building north of Burk Mansion that I mentioned in my previous post. On the map, that building was the “Mercantile Club,” which explains its unique and most likely expensive architectural design. I would imagine that Burk was a member and visited the club often considering his prestige in Philadelphia as a successful industrialist. Along with the Mercantile Club, one can find several other clubs on the block including Moose Hall, the Knights of Columbus, Hibernians (referring to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic only club of the time period), the Progress Club (seen on the far left of the image down), as well as a plot named simply “club” conveniently placed across the street from the Columbia Club. My colleagues found evidence that Burk Mansion has tunnels beneath the building and that Alfred Burk was possibly a rum runner during prohibition. Could the “club,” which was located on the same square block as the Burk Mansion, have been a depository for said illegal liquids? Regardless, from looking at this old map I can imagine this block as a Catholic community enclave for Irish and Italians as well as those of the upper-class.

The second image (and more blurry…I apologize for my unsteady hand) is of the western side of Broad Street. Notice the “Incarnation Prot. Epis. Church” plot on the corner of Jefferson and Broad. This is the same plot now occupied by Mt. Olive and Bishop Martin from my previous post. In my interview with the Bishop, he indicated that this neighborhood used to have several schools including one that torn down and made into a Temple athletics practice field. Mr. Martin was talking about a school that existed in the 1970s, but after doing some Google Mapping, I discovered that the building once housing young minds was always a place of learning. Notice the square block at the bottom left of the image below enclosed by Thompson and Master street on the north and south and Watts and 13th on the east and west. There was a “Public Industrial Arts School” and a “H. Josephine Widener Public School” named after the wife of  Peter Arrell Brown Widener, an American Art Collector and businessman.

After looking at these maps and comparing them to the existing block, one starts to understand the transformation that took place in the space around Burk Mansion. The neighborhood used to be one of wealth, ethnic solidarity, and educational diversity. The still has some of these characteristics, albeit, with Temple having a much larger footprint. Certainly the wealth left, but a new kind of wealth is returning, one with a corporate instead of community tinge.

 

The Anachronistic Block of Burk Mansion

After spending some time walking around the vicinity of Burk Mansion (1500 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia) I felt like was walking through a physical timeline of the neighborhood. The “block” is specifically the one square block radius confined by Oxford and Master on the north and south edges and 15th and Broad street on the east and west edges. Just south of the Burk Mansion on the east side of the street were what looked like old-red brick three story buildings that most likely were owned by a rich single family home. I need to research the architectural characteristics to get an exact date on its construction, but with its adjacency to the Burk Mansion (Home of former leather tycoon Alfred Burk of Burk Brothers Co.) I would assume this block was at one point affluent. When I walked on the east side of the block behind Burk Mansion near Master street, the adjacency of dilapidated row homes connected to new Temple housing painted a different picture.

           

The picture on the left (above) has two run-down, uninhabited (I’m assuming) buildings sandwiched in between two newly renovated. They are both being rented by Temple Villas, a university affiliated real estate firm. The picture below I found interesting as well. The style suggests that the building had existed in the neighborhood for several decades. The central windows (rounded) were made of wood that was well aged. This is an example of an apartment complex that was developed prior to its counterparts across the street.

All of these building were within one block of one another, and all were most likely built/developed at different points in time stretching back to the early 20th century. The people living in these buildings and those farther down the block were also quite different. It seemed that students lived in the renovated buildings while residents not affiliated with the university lived outside of the Burk block. I spoke with Bishop Thomas Martin of Mt. Olive Holy Temple located on the southwest corner of Broad and Jefferson (across the street from Burk Mansion) who said that the neighborhood used to be more residential, with a fairly large school that has since been replaced by the Temple University Football Practice Field. My next post will delve deeper into the conversation I had with Bishop Martin, but it goes to show that understanding an historical space requires more than simply taking pictures.