The Landscape of the Burk Mansion: Expansion and the Significance of Ghost Landscapes

Upon examining the Burk Mansion, it is easy to see why it was chosen as the central project for the Managing History: Introduction to Public History course. The Alfred E. Burk House (more often referred to as the Burk Mansion) stands at the intersection of Jefferson and North Broad Street, one of the few remaining examples of Victorian classical architecture conspicuously jutting out amid the other buildings on the street. While the building’s imposing limestone edifice may have attracted the attention of first Temple University and then the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, it is the building’s surroundings – its landscaping, adjacent buildings, and location within North Broad Street and North Philadelphia – that grabbed my attention and influenced my understanding of the building’s meaning and purpose.

I am actually lucky enough that I get to walk by the building everyday on my way to campus. Walking from my apartment just south of Gerard Street, the Burk Mansion marks the halfway point between home and the History Department. It could serve as a midpoint between where I live and campus, but the fact that the Burk Mansion is owned by Temple conveys the confusion about what is exactly Temple’s campus. Walking up North Broad Street, Burk Mansion seems well removed from the towers of Morgan or Gladfelter Halls, but one of the more recent maps created of Temple’s campus showed buildings used by Temple that extended even further south than Jefferson Street. This tension between the perceived and actual boundaries of Temple’s campus highlights how the Burk Mansion holds meaning as a trophy in Temple’s campaign for expansion and development. Removed from Temple’s nucleus, the Burk Mansion nonetheless serves as an outpost of the University, a sign of its expanding reach and ownership. Looking at its landscape on a smaller scale shows how the Burk Mansion, and the local community, is negligibly treated in this rush for unplanned expansion.

Comparing the Mansion and its surroundings with the polished glass tower of Morgan Hall is like night and day. Neighbored by an abandoned church with what appears to be serious fire damage, the Burk Mansion is surrounded by a jumble of green and black padlocked metal fencing. Behind the fence, construction materials are strewn about behind the building and only half of the lawns and flower beds surrounding the building are cared for, implying that whoever looks after the building understands the responsibility for upkeep but doesn’t go beyond what is absolutely necessary. Learning Historical Research’s article on reading landscapes describes ghost landscapes as “clues left behind from the past that show what a previous landscape may have looked like,” and the Burk Mansion strikes me as a variation on this concept. Despite its lack of use or thorough care, the building itself attracts onlookers’ attention and its size and style communicates its importance. While the building serves as a clue for its past grandeur, the current state teaches us more so about how present motivations influence how we treat our past. The disrepair gives us insight into how historical sites like the Burk Mansion are misused in the service of development and expansion, rather than used as sites of historical significance and potential interpretation or even as spaces of true community outreach and empowerment.