Sixteen years since closing, a historically rich mansion’s future remains unclear.
An old, off-white mansion sits at the corner of Broad and Jefferson streets in North Philadelphia, mysteriously gated off from the community and offering no connection to Temple other than a small cherry-red sign that reads “1500.”
The boarded and vacant building, at 1500 N. Broad St., offers no suggestion of its rich history as the home of Alfred E. Burk during the early 1900s. Now, the building appears in disarray, showing little sign of rehabilitation in sight.
The Burk Mansion was built in 1909 for millionaire Burk, a famed leather manufacturer who owned the Morocco Leather factory in Northern Liberties. Burk occupied the house until his death in 1921.
The three-story, 27-room house then was home to the Upholsterers International Union from 1945 until 1970. Temple acquired the mansion the following year, as a home for its School of Social Administration and its Center for Social Policy and Community Development, according to an article in the Philadelphia Bulletin.
In 1975, Temple’s now-defunct daycare moved from its former home in Mitten Hall to 1500 N. Broad St. The daycare was utilized by Temple employees and students, as well as families in the surrounding community.
The building was credited with housing an “award winning” daycare program by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which also hailed the mansion for its architecture.
In “Philadelphia’s Broad Street: South and North,” Bob Skaler describes the building as “the last great mansion to be built on North Broad St.”
The Burk Mansion also represents North Philadelphia’s former social prominence and stature.
“The mansion calls to mind the era when a N. Broad St. address meant wealth and position,” states a March 12, 1971 Philadelphia Bulletin article.
But the building’s glory would soon come to an end.
A FIERY CLOSING
The mansion suffered a blow on July 8, 1993, when a fire damaged the building.
Four maintenance employees were injured when the air conditioner they were repairing burst into flames, according to a July 9, 1993 Inquirer article.
Director of Maintenance and Engineering Mike Gentile said the incident consisted of a “flash fire,” from the air conditioner, which caused smoke damage in one area of the building.
“The fire was a mechanical fire, but it did not destroy the entire building,” Gentile said. “I think it was still in use shortly after the fire.”
The fire damage, along with declining state appropriations from the commonwealth, caused Temple to close the building in July 1995.
“My understanding was that it kind of became uninhabitable,” Interim Director of the Center for Social Policy and Community Development Shirley Moy said. “I think they realized how much it would cost to renovate it.”
The Inquirer estimated renovations would cost $2.8 million.
Moy said that the closing of the building led the center to move to the former University Services building, at 1601 N. Broad St.
However, the university chose to close its day care program altogether, which sparked outrage among both students and employees.
The closure was among a number of cuts approved by the university to decrease spending by $18 million. At the time, the mansion cost $300,000 to maintain and operate.
Parents of the 85 children who attended Temple’s day care were forced to find a new center, despite efforts to force the university to keep it open.
Along with protests, four Temple students fought the move in court claiming that the building did not cost much to maintain and that the university breached contract, according to the Inquirer. The court rejected the motion by the students and the building closed without contest.
STATE OF VACANCY
Since its closing in 1995, the Burk Mansion has sat vacant, with no current plans to utilize the building.
Although it is not being utilized by the university, Robert Siegfried, associate vice president of facilities management, said the building is slowly being rehabilitated.
“We just recently began working with the historical commission on getting the building buttoned up and kind of moth balled to protect it from the elements,” Siegfried said. “We took a lot of the landscape down that [grew] up around the building, and on the building and into the building, and boarded up all of the windows and doors.”
Siegfried added that they are still working on patching up the roof, which is in poor condition.
“I believe the roof is original to the building, so it’s in pretty poor shape,” Siegfried said.
The only major plan for the building since its closing was, at one time, to house the headquarters of the Honors College program.
Ray Betzner, assistant vice president of university communications, said the proposed headquarters came at a time when the economy soured, which halted plans for the site.
The project’s cost was an estimated $44 million, according to the facilities management website.
Siegfried added that the plan also ceased because it was going to use an empty lot and a neighboring building that is currently occupied by a church, which are not owned by Temple.
But, as time passes, contention appears to be growing with what to do with the building. Because it has been vacant for so long, some have called on Temple to sell it.
“If Temple really doesn’t have a way to [rehabilitate the building], then sell it and give someone else a chance to do something with it,” John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said.
Despite university officials’ intent to sell the building when they closed its doors, Siegfried said that the Burk Mansion would stay in Temple’s hands.
“We did show it to some folks years back, some prospective buyers,” Gentile said. “I think they were going to make a hotel out of it at one time and that was hot and heavy for a few years, but that kind of fizzled out.”
Although the building sits vacant, Siegfried said that the university still wants to maintain and preserve the century old mansion.
“It’s certainly an opportunity to renovate a historic structure and use it for whatever the need is at the time,” Siegfried said. “We want to preserve the building as much as we can. We don’t want it to just fall in on itself.”
Sean Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.