The Crane Ice Cream Factory at 256-70 S. 23rd Street opened in 1902. It stopped churning out vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry treats in the late 1930s. The handsome, two-story brick building, designed by engineering firm Ballinger & Perrot, now houses an unusual combination: luxury apartments and the Conservation Center for Arts & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). In one part of the building, residents can be heard listening to WXPN in the morning while getting their kids ready for school. In another, skilled conservators are busy preserving an astonishing array of works on paper–from a rare 18th century Koran to daguerreotypes taken by Philadelphia photographer Robert Cornelius to money salvaged from the safe of the sunken Italian passenger ship Andrea Doria.
In 1977, Marilyn Kempt Weidner became a pioneer when she founded CCAHA in her home at 600 Spruce Street. Until that time, conservation was primarily about the restoration of paintings. Weidner borrowed techniques and methods from Japanese conservators and was one of first in the United States to preserve works on paper.
CCAHA later moved to the top floor of the Atlantic Richfield building at 206 S. Broad Street. When it was sold in 1984, CCAHA moved into the former Crane Ice Cream Factory on 23rd Street, a space that was previously occupied by an architecture studio. The other tenants at the time were commercial. According to the building’s current co-owner, Jonathan Tori of Tori Properties, the old ice cream factory has experienced multiple reuses throughout its history.
“After around 30 years as an ice cream factory, it was an electronic motor manufacturing plant, a wine bottler, a photography school, a flower distribution warehouse, and a book binder manufacturer,” said Tori. “My family purchased the property in 1980. At the time it was abandoned. My father tore down the middle to create an open air parking lot, which is now in the rear part of the building. Around 1981, it was converted to offices and, in 1997, it became a mixed residential and office building,” Tori explained. CCAHA is currently the only commercial tenant today.
Back in the 1980s, many of CCAHA’s staff came from fine arts backgrounds. The organization’s conservation director, Mary Schobert, had an MFA in painting when she joined the staff in 1982. “I had worked in conservation in my grad school library at Southern Illinois University, and I started at CCAHA as a technician,” said Schobert. “I then entered an apprenticeship program, took chemistry classes at community college, and intensive summer classes in conservation at Columbia University.” This prepared Schobert for work on special projects.
“The Philadelphia Museum of Art came to us when they had a Thomas Eakins show that included many of his preparatory drawings for paintings of rowers. They were in a million pieces. I worked on those drawings, and it was an amazing show,” Schobert recalled.
Another project took her to the White House in Washington, D.C. “I worked on wallpaper restoration in the Diplomatic Reception Room and the Family Dining Room,” Schobert said. “In 1961, former First Lady Jackie Kennedy installed mid-19th century scenic French wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room depicting early American panoramic scenes.” Betty Ford didn’t like it, apparently, and had it removed during her husband Gerald’s presidency. But Rosalynn Carter reinstalled it when husband Jimmy took office in 1977. Along the way, the old wallpaper tore, faded, and pulled away from the wall. Schobert and her team painstakingly applied paste with a syringe, nursing the room back to its original grandeur.
Anna Krain, who retired in 2020 as CCAHA’s senior conservation assistant, had just graduated as a printmaking major from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art when she began working for the organization in 1987. “It was a fascinating place to work,” said Krain. “I got chills when I preserved documents from the New Jersey State Archives that dated from when America shifted from British rule to independence. The earlier documents all contained King George’s name in the dates and then, suddenly, the king was gone!”
Krain also worked on Bruce Springsteen’s scrapbooks, which were being prepared for an exhibition at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. “I worked on the spiral notebooks where he wrote lyrics. I loved his handwriting. He wrote every song, over and over, perhaps to help him memorize them,” she said.
Over the years, CCAHA has formed relationships with the nation’s leading cultural and educational institutions, including the Barnes Foundation, the Rosenbach Museum, the Smithsonian, and New York Public Library. It has also preserved Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural drawings, John James Audubon’s Birds of America prints and, recently, helped create a special exhibition now on view at the Museum of the American Revolution, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia. A 1818 portrait of of wealthy Black sailmaker and abolitionist James Forten, and the Forten family Bible dating back to 1839, received special treatment from CCAHA.
CCAHA has also stepped up to meet environmental challenges. In 2016, CCAHA’s Samantha Forsko launched the Pennsylvania Cultural Response Team to provide trained volunteer assistance when emergencies occur at cultural institutions anywhere in the Commonwealth. Tornados, floods, and other disasters are no match for CCAHA’s dedicated team of conservators.