Before sporting goods companies tattooed our apparel with Swooshes and stripes, and before movie stars blasted their images across social media, a Philadelphia manufacturer of architectural terra-cotta hit on a way to get its brand in front of the public. In 1898, the Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Co. built an ornate twin house in the Nicetown-Tioga section that was encrusted with its products.
Today, the company is a memory, but its chateau-style demonstration house somehow hangs on at 2224-26 W. Tioga St. in North Philadelphia, even though it is currently unoccupied. As befits a three-dimensional building catalog, the facade is an encyclopedia of classical-style details rendered in terra-cotta, the relatively inexpensive, clay-based ceramic used for architectural decoration.
The material is layered on at every level of the three-story twin. Pairs of Corinthian columns scored with flowers and fluting hold up the porch’s massive entablature, or lintel, which is itself a dense collage of scrolls, leaves, and dentil incisions. Diamonds and shields frame the two regal bay windows. The double-height dormer windows are treated like miniature versions of baroque churches. The house even has a few plain tiles corseting its corners.
This block of West Tioga, between 22nd and 23rd Streets, may seem today like an odd spot for such a grand promotional gesture. But when architect Edgar Viguers Seeler was hired, middle-class Philadelphians were flocking to newly fashionable Tioga. The block is still lined with handsome, well-kept stone houses, although none are as flamboyant as Conkling-Armstrong.
At the same time new neighborhoods were going up, the area around Nicetown and Hunting Park also began to industrialize. Ira L. Conkling and Thomas F. Armstrong arrived in 1895 and set up their terra-cotta factory about two blocks from West Tioga Street. It’s not clear whether they lived in the house or merely used it as a showplace.
But they certainly prospered, as demand for middle-class houses boomed. Conkling-Armstrong became a major supplier of precast terra-cotta pieces that could be used to distinguish ordinary brick houses. They also began to supply major architects, like Horace Trumbauer and Cope & Stewardson, with custom pieces. The Witherspoon Building (also known as the Presbyterian Board of Publication) at Walnut and Juniper Streets virtually drips with terra-cotta from Conkling-Armstrong. Later, it became a major source for the ornament that enlivened art deco theaters, like the Anthony Wayne Cinema in Wayne.
The industrialization of the neighborhood proved a mixed blessing. The Budd Co.’s automobile plant opened a few blocks from the Conkling-Armstrong house in 1912 and soon grew into a sprawling, belching compound. As the area became Philadelphia’s manufacturing heartland, big-name companies like Midvale Steel and Tastykake set up plants nearby. But with increasing suburbanization after World War II, industry and residents began migrating out of the neighborhood.
The house was acquired in 1945 by a couple who took in foster children, according to a 2014 account by Jennifer Robinson, then a graduate student in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. It is now owned by one of those children, who lives next door.
Although she told Robinson she wanted to restore the house, it has clearly been slow-going. Trees sprout from the roof, and the bay on the west facade sags. “No trespassing” signs have been posted to deter scavengers. For all that, the house’s distinctive charms remain intact. In a study of the neighborhood issued last year, the Planning Commission called out the Conkling-Armstrong house as a good candidate for historic designation.
It would be a great way to recognize the neighborhood’s history. But there isn’t much time left. The Conkling-Armstrong factory fell to wreckers in 2011. If this living catalog of its work also succumbs, we’ll lose another crucial link to Philadelphia’s great industrial past.