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.
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.
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.
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.