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.

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