The property at 1500 North Broad Street stands on the northwest corner of North Broad and West Jefferson Streets and ends at North Carlisle Street at the back of the property. The original parts of the property include the mansion and matching conservatory designed in a late Victorian Italian Renaissance style by Edward P. Simon and David B. Bassett, two architects responsible for other well-known Philadelphia buildings such as the Fidelity Building and the Strawbridge & Clothier Building. Commissioned by Alfred E Burk in 1907, the mansion and conservatory were built by the contracting firm John Gill and Company and completed in 1909. The main structure is a three story ornate stone facade structure on a raised basement. The home itself has twenty-seven rooms and seven bathrooms. The basement has more square footage than the above floors and includes a concealed entrance and two narrow passageways that extend under Jefferson Street and terminate in two storage rooms. There was a three story steel framed addition built onto the mansion in 1953-54 by the architect Louis A. Manfredi to expand the space for offices by the Upholsterers’ International Union. When Temple University purchased the building in 1971 they refrained from making any drastic changes to the interior, leaving several original features intact including stain glass windows and doors, fluted columns, and extensive intricate woodwork and tilework. It is unknown how much of the interior has survived due to the building sitting empty for twenty-three years.
The properties at 1500 North Broad Street, formerly the Alfred E. Burk House, stands as a striking physical edifice whose shape and current condition trace the dynamic physical, political, demographic, and industrial shifts in North Philadelphia over the past century. As one of the last major mansions built during the post-Civil War boom, 1500 North Broad sits at a border in time between North Philadelphia’s elite past and its eventual transition into an area with a poverty rate exceeding 60%. Massive university expansion and new construction in the region over the past few decades threatens another shift in the history of North Broad, yet amidst it all the Burk Mansion remains.Through the mansion, annex, and conservatory at 1500 North Broad Street, historians can tell a variety of different stories about how businesses, labor, and Temple University’s relationships to one another and the neighborhood transformed over time.
The oldest structures still standing on the 1500 North Broad plot, the Burk Mansion and its matching conservatory hearken back to the social and political affluence of the early-twentieth century industrialists of North Philadelphia. The mansion, considered a fine example of late-Victorian Italian Renaissance style, was designed by prolific Philadelphia-based architects David B. Bassett and Edward P. Simon and erected by John Gill and Company for Alfred E. Burk in 1907. The mansion housed rooms for Burk and the staff, along with Burk’s personal offices. The conservatory was used originally by Burk as a carriage house (for both horse and automobiles) and was later converted into a public garden. Burk, the president and director of the Burk Brothers glazed leather manufacturers, was an economically and politically powerful man well connected among North Philadelphia’s elite. He served as the president of the Pier Realty Holding Company, vice-president of the Atlantic City Steel Pier Company, a representative for Pennsylvania at the 1920 Republican National Convention, the director of the Market Street National Bank, the Continental Equitable Title and Trust Company, and the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, and he was offered the chance but ultimately turned down the opportunity of serving as a member of the United States House of Representatives.
The mansion and its matching conservatory, with their limestone facades and Corinthian frontispieces, structurally communicated Burk’s importance and influence he held in the surrounding community. Despite what the building’s size may suggest, Burk never married and had no children. This fact has inspired North Philadelphia folklore that Burk was spurred to build the mansion as a display of masculine extravagance after being rejected by the woman he loved. Burk lived in the mansion from 1909 until his death in 1921, and although he ever married, Burk shared his mansion space with a staff of African-American, Hungarian, and German descent that maintained the gardens in and around the conservatory and oversaw the cooking and housekeeping. Both labor and capital inhabited the space at 1500 North Broad, collectively claiming ownership of and shaping the space. Following his death, Alfred Burk’s surviving siblings took ownership of the mansion for the next two decades, until selling it to the Upholsterers’ International Union.
The building became the headquarters for the Upholsterers International Union (UIU) in 1945. The former dining room became the office for the president of the union, Sal B. Hoffman who had run the union since 1937. Hoffman, a firm anti-communist and a strongman leader, successfully ran a lively union of thousands of members from the base of 1500 North Broad. Hoffman actively included the union in anti-Communist politics by organizing a Council Against Communist Aggression (CACA) at 1500 North Broad and organizing educational programs through the Committee of Political Education (COPE). The Upholsterers International Union was an American Federation of Labor (AFL) affiliated union originally comprised of mostly Jewish and Italian men. In the 1950s, the UIU participated in a merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that offered opportunities for more African Americans to join the union. The changing demographics of the UIU also attest to the changes to the neighborhood of North Philadelphia.
The UIU created many social services for their members. A women’s auxiliary program allowed women to support themselves and their relatives within the UIU. Other services services also included an expansion of the union’s welfare system, which expanded membership pension plans and led to the construction of a retirement “village” in southern Florida. These changing demographics and growth to the union led to the construction of a concrete and steel utilitarian-style annex built and designed from 1953 to 1954 by Louis A. Manfredi. The conservatory continued to be used for horticultural purposes but it was partially modified by the UIU to include a rock garden and a built-in-waterfall. Like Alfred E. Burk, the Upholsterers’ International Union inhabited 1500 North Broad Street and changed its shape in order to best maximize their political and economic clout in a changing socio-political environment. The presence of the UIU, with its racially and ethnically diverse membership, reflects the changing demographics of North Broad Street in the mid-twentieth century.
In 1971, the Upholsterers’ International Union moved their offices to a larger space in Philadelphia and sold the buildings to Temple University for $400,000 to be used as the School of Social Administration. The same year, Temple moved their on-campus daycare into the building’s annex. Under the auspices of Temple’s Center for Social Policy and Community Development, the daycare featured training programs for welfare recipients looking for employment opportunities. The daycare would be housed here, serving children of both Temple students and community members, until its closure in 1995 – two years after an air conditioner explosion in the main building injured four maintenance workers and caused significant fire damage to the building. Citing cost-prohibitive repairs, they daycare was closed in July of 1995 amidst a severe round of budget cuts and university-wide layoffs.
More than 100 children and 85 staff members were displaced by the daycare’s sudden closure, resulting in four students taking legal action against the university. Arguing that use of Temple’s daycare facility was used as a lure for enrollment, the students’ attorney claimed the university had misled students and breached contract in closing the daycare. An injunction was brought against the school in an attempt to keep the daycare open, but was denied by the Common Pleas Court. After the daycare’s official closure, 1500 North Broad was shuttered by Temple University, though remnants of the daycare – children’s art, brightly colored murals – still remain inside both the main building and conservatory. There has been no new child care services available for students or community members on Temple’s campus since.
The history of 1500 North Broad from 1909 to 1995 is one of reaching across borders and forging connections with wide-reaching impacts on North Philadelphia, the city at-large, and even the country. Temple’s ownership and abandonment of 1500 North Broad, however, tells the story of a border closing. 1500 North Broad Street’s contradictory current state as dignified yet decrepit highlights the counterbalancing narratives enshrined in its structure. Upper-class industrialists, high-powered union bosses, and university administrators shared spaces with lower and middle class day laborers, office workers, teachers, and students of varying ethnic backgrounds. As the building changed and grew, opportunities for work, advancement, or education were constant at 1500 North Broad. In a crucial moment when Temple University – originally founded to educate working-class Philadelphians – must reckon with its past and ask important questions about its future, the steadfastness of the white marble building at North Broad and Jefferson inspires reflection on the ever-changing landscape that surrounds it. The building and its location at the edge of Temple’s campus offers an excellent opportunity for the university to reach across borders once more.