Hard Hat Tour: The Amperium

Or, why living in a repurposed 1860s firehouse is way cooler than living in a new construction apartment.

The future home of Riverwards Produce. Work on the apartments upstairs is further along. | Photos: Sandy Smith unless otherwise noted

The future home of Riverwards Produce. Work on the apartments upstairs is further along. | Photos: Sandy Smith unless otherwise noted

Over on Be Well Philly, Adjua Fisher was positively jubilant about the news that Riverwards Produce, which operated a pop-up produce market in Fishtown this past summer, will become a permanent tenant of the first floor of a converted firehouse at 2200 E. Norris St. starting sometime in March.

Over here on Property, I’m positively jubilant about the firehouse it’s going into.

So is its owner, Rory Scerri-Marion. In fact, he fell in love with it so much, he renamed both his real estate investment company and the building for the business that had occupied that first-floor space for 63 years.

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s rewind to this building’s beginning, which is why it’s on the city and national historic registers.

2200 E. Norris St. today

2200 E. Norris St. today

This Italianate building was erected in 1860 (or 1867, according to this history) as a “hose house” for one of the city’s volunteer fire companies, the Friendship Fire Company. While the 1854 consolidation had professionalized police protection citywide, firefighting remained a volunteer affair, and often a cutthroat one as rival fire companies often fought to put out fires and collect the insurance money from owners who had not contracted with a specific fire company for protection. Soon after it was completed, however, the city did establish a professional fire department, and the Friendship firehouse became one of the city’s first ladder companies.

After Friendship decamped, the building had a checkered history: it served as a brothel for a short while, and from the late 1860s onward, it served as the home of a Grand Army of the Republic post. (The GAR was the fraternal organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.) The GAR held its own meetings there and rented the upstairs meeting hall, with its extra-high ceilings and balcony, to other groups for a number of purposes until it folded its tents in 1907.

After that, a post office occupied the street floor for a number of years, and during Prohibition, Scerri-Marion said, the building also housed a speakeasy, probably in the old GAR hall. “When we bought the building, the doors had little portals in them,” he went on. “One above for the eye, one below for the gun.”

After the post office moved out, the building became the home of the business that occupied the street floor at the time Scerri-Marion, freshly arrived from San Francisco, ran across it. Albin Traceski moved his Ampere Electric Company into the street floor in 1950, and the firm remained there until it closed in 2013 (“after we bought it,” Scerri-Marion said).

Greg Traceski, the grandson of the founder, explained, “Albin was there from 1950 until he died in 1997, and I was there from 1970 until 2013.” The company repaired electric motors for the many light manufacturing establishments that dotted Fishtown, and there was enough work to keep the firm in business right up until, and after, the sale: “We were still a representative of the dying age of manufacturing in the city.”

2200 E. Norris St. at the start of renovation. | Photo: Courtesy Ampere Capital Group

2200 E. Norris St. at the start of renovation. | Photo: Courtesy Ampere Capital Group

Scerri-Marion was so fascinated by the history of both the building and Traceski’s firm that he renamed his investment company Ampere Capital Group. As for the buidling itself, Traceski, who lived above the shop for a while, said, “Because I lived there before it was popular to live in a loft, my friends called the place ‘The Amperium.'” Scerri-Marion liked that name too.

As the building is historically certified, there were things Ampere Capital could and could not do with it. One of the things it could do is restore the double-height windows on what are now the second and third floors, which once housed the GAR and the rumrunners. The brick inserts are gone, replaced by full-height windows with black panes where the floor intrudes.

It could also install a modern elevator in the old freight elevator shaft; the Historical Commission allowed a pilot house to be built atop the building for that purpose.

The need to preserve the building’s structural supports has also created some interesting design features in some of the nine apartments that are being completed on the upper three floors: iron stringers and wood columns occupy prominent places in some units. Otherwise, as the photos below show, the units are totally modern in their outfitting yet have character only a historic building can provide.

The one-bedroom units range in size from 625 to 825 square feet; rents range from $1,300 to $1,700 per month. Ampere started leasing the units the week before our tour, and in that short time, six of the nine units were rented. “Who knew living in this part of Fishtown would be so desirable?” Scerri-Marion said.

It must have something to do with the building. Greg Traceski would probably agree.

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