Most billboards are eyesores, obscuring more interesting views of buildings, landscapes, and scenery. If only they could be removed. But what about when the “billboard” is an object worth looking at, for providing a window into the past? If only it could be saved. It appears that the fortunes of the historic Conkling-Armstrong House in Nicetown-Tioga, one of the most unique buildings in the city, are trending in that direction. Constructed in 1898, the twin dwelling served as an architectural showcase for the eponymous Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company, a major manufacturer of architectural terra cotta used in the construction of various buildings around the Philadelphia region.
Architect Edward V. Seelers, commissioned to design the three-story twin at 2224 and 2226 W. Tioga Street, left it dripping in a wide sampling of the company’s terra cotta works. It is hard to find a square foot of the building’s facade and exterior walls that isn’t adorned with some form of decorative terra cotta, whether it be its 10 corinthian columns, its ornate cornice, or flourishes that surround nearly every window and door.
The rich history and entirely unique design of the house led to a nomination to the local historic register submitted in 2018 by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The building was designated by the Philadelphia Historical Commission for legal protections the following year. At the same time, the already-dilapidated house was quickly falling deeper into disrepair, leaving the city’s preservation community concerned it was still eventually destined for demolition.
Enter The Wise Holding Group, an LLC that formed in 2020 and scooped up the Conkling-Armstrong House the following year. A flurry of activity swiftly followed, with an employee from an architectural firm hired by Wise Holding engaging members of Philadelphia Industrial & Commercial Heritage, a historic preservation group on Facebook, for help in addressing imminently dangerous violations from the City. Subsequently, permits were filed suggesting at least the building’s front facade could be saved.
Now, Brian Wise, managing member of the company, says he wants to do even more. Wise said he has ambitions to conduct significant restoration of the residence, saving and rehabilitating both its facade and sidewalls, replacing its caved-in roof, and reutilizing as much internal framework as possible.
There is evidence of progress: scaffolding and structural supports are currently visible on the building’s interior. On April 28, City records show Wise’s company received permits to make the building safe while maintaining its exterior walls, foundations, and some joists. Wise says he anticipates he will need several months to make the building fully safe before true redevelopment can commence.
He also volunteers that it is the first time he has worked on saving a historic building, but says he is committed to restoring the Conkling-Armstrong House and converting the structure to multi-unit residential. “This is new for us. As far as historic preservation, it’s a new animal,” Wise said. “But it’s exciting.”
A Terra-Cottage Industry
The use of terra cotta materials for various purposes like pottery dates back to ancient times. But, as noted in a history assembled for the Conkling-Armstrong House’s 2018 nomination, terra cotta, Italian for “baked earth,” was first widely used in architecture during the Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. Its popularity then ebbed and flowed over centuries and across cultures, notably rising again in the United States during the industrial boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There was plenty of new money to go around during the Victorian era and Gilded Age, and flamboyant architectural styles flourished, with terra cotta useful to fill the demand. Urban buildings were also increasingly going vertical, opening other new opportunities for versatile terra cotta uses.
“The material benefits of terra cotta were that it was strong in compression, fireproof, capable of taking any shape and color, and therefore capable of being highly ornamental. Additionally, it was cheaper and lighter than carved stone,” the Keeping Society’s nomination explained. “What really carried the terra cotta industry to great heights was its marriage with transitional masonry and later curtain wall construction that made up America’s earliest skyscrapers.”
By 1914, 25 large terra cotta works were in operation around the country and even had their own trade group, the National Terra Cotta Society. Among them, the nomination noted, was Conkling-Armstrong. Established in the late 1880s, the company was originally located at 46th Street and Girard Avenue and carried the names of three founders: Stephens, Conkling, & Armstrong. In the century’s closing decade, Stephens broke off to start a new company in New York, and the remaining Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company relocated its works and offices to Nicetown, employing in excess of 100 men. The company experienced considerable success, helping to adorn more than 90 buildings in Philadelphia, including the Witherspoon Building, Curtis Publishing House, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental Hall, according to the nomination, while also opening a second office in New York City.
According to an 1898 portfolio of the company’s best work, which includes dozens of pages of photographs of adornments used around Philadelphia, Conkling and Armstrong believed terra cotta was in essence truly democratic. “The monotony of design is giving way to more originality. Even small dwellings, tenement houses, and warehouses of today show evidence of design,” the authors of the portfolio wrote. “This has been made more possible by the use of terra cotta, which affords a consistent, practical, cheap, and artistic material for both structural and decorative purposes.” As robust as it was, the black and white portfolio of the company’s work wasn’t enough.
A Temple to Terra Cotta
While most terra cotta companies had showrooms for their products, and larger ones also had catalogs, “no other company had the common sense ingenuity” to construct a demonstration home like the Conkling-Armstrong House, the 2018 nomination noted. The homes were to be the actual dwellings of Conkling and Armstrong, situated just a few minutes away from their company’s factory on Wissahickon Avenue. In 1897, they commissioned Seelers as architect, who in turn designed the twin in a Châteauesque style, identifiable for its high pitched roofs, towers, spires, and heavy ornamentation.
Seelers certainly did not shy away from decoration for the Nicetown-Tioga home, cladding it heavily in Conkling-Armstrong terra cotta. The first floor is dominated by a front porch, with five pairs of Corinthian columns, fluted in their lower thirds, decorated in flowers and diamond shapes in the length above, and capped with an intricate cornice. A diamond pattern is utilized again in vertical lines framing the first floor’s bay windows.
Things get truly unruly on the second and third floors, requiring the use of an architectural encyclopedia for anyone unstudied in the terminology. To simplify, ornate terra cotta adorns nearly everything: patterns and panels of geometric shapes, leaves, faces, and scrolls surround the dwellings’ various windows, corners, and lines. Both sides of the building are also ornamented, highlighted by archways, windows, and cornices.
However, the original grandeur of the building has deeply faded with time. The roof of the porch has collapsed in recent years, and segments of the cornice are missing. Much of the primary roof is gone, particularly on the left unit. Highly exposed to the elements, those familiar with the building say not much remains salvageable inside.
Jennifer Robinson, director of preservation services for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, was previously involved with efforts to repair the house when it was still owned by a woman who was raised in it. Unable to keep up financially, the house went to sheriff’s sale and in more recent years was owned by developers who hadn’t realized the building’s unique and demanding characteristics. They found themselves “in over their head,” Robinson said. The Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) also declared the building unsafe, opening the door to potential demolition. “There was a lot of concern that it might not stay standing, even with the local protections,” said Robinson.
With the last of the Conkling-Armstrong factory buildings demolished in 2011, it appeared the final sunset on the company’s physical footprint was imminent. Seemingly out of nowhere, Wise’s group came to own it, and Robinson said the Preservation Alliance worked to notify L&I that someone was working to save and redevelop the building. “We were thrilled to see it was in the hands of someone who had an interest in preservation,” Robinson said. Still, there remains a long road ahead.
Wise is currently working just to make the building safe, with an additional priority construction of a new roof to minimize exposure to the elements. He has received permission from the Historical Commission to replace the original slate with faux shingles, but says it is still going to be very expensive. Installing new joists and flooring are also near the top of the to-do list.
On the exterior, Wise says he is bringing in terra cotta consultants to assess what it would take to restore or replace the myriad ornamentations. He did not offer an estimated dollar amount, but Robinson said, based on her experience, she suspects the costs of all the rehabilitation work could make the margins of a residential redevelopment very tight. She wonders if perhaps there is a possibility of additional construction on the back of the lot. Stretching all the way to the rear street, much of the plot is currently undeveloped.
Wise says he is also interested in finding any potential grant programs to help with the restoration. Robinson noted that there typically isn’t a lot of funding in the philanthropic world for historic restoration. Ultimately, Wise says he envisions a multi-family development, with a mix of market-rate and affordable units. But that’s another conversation with the city after the building has been stabilized. “We just haven’t gotten that far yet,” Wise said. “We want to try.”