Composing a historical narrative using written documents and sources is a bit like making a collage. The historian collects pieces – theory, framework, records, articles, diaries, letters, photographs – and layers them together until they tell a story. The goal, of course, is to tell as complete and well-rounded a story as possible, taking into account the historian’s own potential biases and interests. The reader of history, viewing this narrative collage in its complete and published form, comes away with a better understanding of both the subject of the historical inquiry and its author.
Using historical maps as sources can be transformative work. Including elements of historical geography orients the narrative in space, adding another dimension to studies that often dwell exclusively in time. It takes the story from a collage to a sculpture – something that has weight and orientation.
While working with the story of the Burk Mansion, we’ve formed a rough timeline – changes in ownership, use, and major events. We know that the building itself has undergone changes, including additions, parking lots, and fire damage. And we can lay this timeline side by side with the source material and get a fairly clear picture of what happened. We are still examining the “why” and the “how” for many of these events, but in exploring historical maps, we are addressing one question that doesn’t always get asked: “Where?”
I selected three maps from philageohistory.org, a local map resource that also hosts a map-layering tool. The first is a Scull and Heap map from about 1750. The red marker indicates the location of what is now the Burk Mansion.
These maps tell a story of the land the mansion is on, and how the landscape shifted from 1750 to 1910. The Bromley map also says a lot about the mansion’s proximity to Temple University, the current owner of the Burk Mansion. For me, these maps give context to the mansion and its neighborhood. They bring a lot of the data we’ve gathered into perspective. These maps also bring up a few questions – what economic data can we gather about this area and how has that changed over time? Can we access land and property valuation for this area and could that have some bearing on how the mansion is currently being used? Most of all, I want to work toward a current map of 1500 North Broad Street that reflects a Burk Mansion that is active and involved in its community.