B.J. Burke, 79, Center City activist

Posted: April 22, 2008

Bobbye James Burke, 79, of Center City, who worked to preserve Rittenhouse Square as a vibrant and vital neighborhood, died of complications from heart surgery Friday at Hahnemann University Hospital.

In 1972, Mrs. Burke became the first woman elected president of the Center City Residents' Association, which was founded in 1947 to stop Rittenhouse Square from being dug up for an underground parking lot.

As president, she lobbied for improving the transit system, developing open space, and enforcing the zoning code. Otherwise, she told a reporter shortly after being elected president, "we could have a rendering plant at the end of Pine Street."

Mrs. Burke, who grew up moving from town to town while her father worked for oil pipeline companies in Oklahoma and Mississippi, also was eager to promote the virtues of living downtown.

"Some people think of Center City as a cold community, but that just isn't so," she said. "It's a desirable neighborhood with schools, Cub and Girl Scouts."

Mrs. Burke had lived in Center City since 1956, when she and her husband, DuPont engineer Joseph A. Burke, moved into a rental on Panama Street, her daughter Monika Starcevic said.

The couple later bought and rebuilt a shell on Waverly Street, and in the late 1960s they restored a townhouse on the 2100 block of Pine Street. After the couple divorced in 1994, she moved to the Kennedy House in Center City.

Mrs. Burke earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art history from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in theology from Villanova University. She taught art history at the Community College of Philadelphia for 17 years before retiring in 1989, and was devoted to Center City.

She was a founder of the Preservation Coalition, now Alliance, and was a founder of the Old St. Joseph's Historic Preservation Corp.

She was the church archivist for many years and in 2005 she discovered a Bible that had belonged to the Rev. Joseph Greaton, the Jesuit who in 1733 established Old St. Joseph's as Pennsylvania's first Catholic worship site.

Recently, she had been involved in the church's 275th anniversary celebration, said its pastor, the Rev. Mark Horak.

She worked to have hundreds of trees planted in Center City, lobbied to establish the Albert M. Greenfield School on Chestnut Street, the first public school to be built in Center City in decades, and helped create the Rittenhouse/Fitler Historic District.

In 1985, she coauthored with Otto Sperr, Hugh J. McCauley and Trina Vaux In Historic Rittenhouse: A Philadelphia Neighborhood.

"The book describes how the neighborhood was, what it is, how it got that way and how to preserve it - not as a quaint relic but as a vibrant and vital area of present and future," an Inquirer reviewer wrote.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Burke is survived by a brother; two grandchildren; and her former husband.

A Funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Old St. Joseph's church. Friends may call at 8:30 a.m. Burial will be in Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia.

Memorial donations may be made to Old St. Joseph's Historic Preservation Corp., 321 Willing's Alley, Philadelphia 19106.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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