Philadelphia’s Burk Mansion, a site currently protected by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and owned by Temple University, occupies the southmost portion of the block bordered on the east by Broad Street, the south by Jefferson Street, and the west by Carlisle Street. An impressive facade greets pedestrians and drivers passing by on Broad, while a turn onto Jefferson reveals a large courtyard hedged by a conservatory-style structure at the back of the property. The rear grounds are in some disrepair. Bricks and debris lay strewn on the concrete and the grassy areas are patchy and parched. The east and south grounds of the mansion, however, look relatively well-kept: the grass mown, the hydrangeas pruned and blooming, and the walkways free of weedy overgrowth, one might surmise that at least part of the mansion is in use by some group or other.
Built in 1909, the mansion has served a number of purposes and housed a wealth of Philadelphians and enterprises, beginning with its namesake: leather millionaire Alfred Burk. However, the building now stands empty. It hasn’t been used in recent memory. Its last official use was as a daycare for Temple faculty and students, which shut down after an electrical fire in 1995. Observers debate its fate: will Temple demolish and build over it? Refurbish it? Or perhaps continue to ignore it, keeping the grass mown and the grounds fenced?
The neighborhood around the mansion has certainly evolved since 1909. The surrounding blocks contain a shopping strip, a nondescript halfway house, and student housing. The mansion’s adjacent lot is a half-demolished ruins of an Apostolic Faith church. Layers of history lay underneath the neighborhood: millionaires’ mansions built and razed, residents moved in and moved on, family businesses cycling through entire lifespans, lighting up and going dark while the sun rose and set on the Burk Mansion for 109 years. A person standing on the corner of Broad and Jefferson can almost see the traces of the last century out of the corner of the mansion’s eye.
What should be done with the Burk Mansion? Without a view of the inside, it’s difficult to say. I typically fall on the “restore-and-use” side of the preservation argument, because I hate to see an already-standing building go to waste if it could still function with a little investment. I wonder about the possibility of a community meeting space. A restored, refurbished version of the building that played host to so many Philadelphians in the last hundred years might be a welcome site for local groups and organizations to hold meetings, events, and celebrations. Temple could capitalize on the need for accessible local spaces and make the news for something positive. On the other hand, the university desperately needs an on-site daycare if it wants to meet the demands of a changing demographic, and if it wants to start meeting the needs of the community. But is the Burk Mansion the answer?