Artistic talents helped celebrate neighborhood

Photos by Sylvia Halpern Barkan on Discover Magazine.
Photos by Sylvia Halpern Barkan on Discover Magazine.
Posted: July 09, 2012

Sylvia Halpern Barkan, 95, a photographer and artist who was a community activist in University City for 63 years, died in her home there, Saturday, June 30.

In 1949, Mrs. Barkan and her husband, Ben, a labor attorney, moved into a home at 47th and Osage in the Garden Court section of University City. They renovated the early-20th-century twin and became involved in the community.

When Mrs. Barkan received the Garden Court Community Association's first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, the association chronicled the Barkans' contributions.

In the early 1950s, the couple organized neighbors to fight a fraternity that tried to turn a garage into a party room and fought commercial uses of residential properties by unscrupulous landlords.

Later, when residents began moving to the suburbs, Mrs. Barkan and her husband joined with Realtors to lure new homeowners, welcoming families of all races and creeds.

Ben Barkan died in 1969.

In the 2007 tribute, a friend Amy Orr said, "Sylvia and Ben kept this neighborhood whole through several difficult decades."

Mrs. Barkan often used her artistic talents to celebrate the neighborhood. She designed the logos for the University City Historical Society and the University City Swim Club. She helped found both organizations as well as the University City Arts League.

"Sylvia was very generous, making maps for house tours and drawings of historic properties," said Mike Hardy, former president of the University City Historical Society.

In 2007, when the Garden Court Community Association credited her illustrations and photographs of neighborhood landmarks for increasing the understanding and appreciation of University City's built environment she demurred, "This neighborhood is very photogenic."

When she and her neighbors couldn't save a fine Victorian home from the wrecking ball, they salvaged stained glass, terra cotta cornices, and other artifacts. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool preservationist," she said in 2007.

In 1971, Mrs. Barkan's photos of neighborhood architecture and artifacts and her pen-and-ink sketches of 19th-century homes, illustrated an article about University City in Discover Magazine, the Sunday Supplement of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

She took great joy in urban living, her son Jonathan said. During the Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, he said, she photographed all the red, white, and blue decorations around the city.

Mrs. Barkan, who had briefly worked as a fashion illustrator, began a career as a freelance graphic designer in the 1950s. Her clients included the School District of Philadelphia, West Philadelphia Corporation, the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

She shot photos and painted water colors on summer vacations in at the Shore in Beach Haven, her son said.

Mrs. Barkan was committed to social justice and served on the board of the Americans for Democratic Action in Philadelphia. She supported her husband's efforts as a union lawyer and would bring food to people on picket lines, their son said.

Mrs. Barkan graduated from Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia and earned a bachelor's degree from Moore College of Art and Design in 1937.

In recent months, she continued to sketch and paint at home surrounded by her collection of mid-20th century furniture, with the assistance of her granddaughter, Sophie Barkan.

In addition to her son and granddaughter, Mrs. Barkan is also survived by a son Howard and grandchildren Ben and Lauren Barkan.

A life celebration and exhibit of her work will be held this fall in University City.

Contact Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or

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