What Is That?! Ampere Electric Building, 2200 E. Norris Street
If you’ve walked by the corner of Norris and Sepviva and wondered, “What the heck is a Sepviva?” you are not alone. You may have also wondered about that building on the southeast corner of that intersection.
The structure dates back to the 1860s. While current information indicates it was constructed in 1860, the newspapers of the day point to the summer of 1866.
The building was originally constructed to be a Hose House (what we would call a Fire Station today) by the Friendship Fire Company, which was relocating from 3rd and Brown Streets. That explains those tall, rounded, archways on the front of the building, which would be necessary to roll the steam engines out safely. Otherwise “Frederick Friendship” may’ve busted his head open sitting on top of the horse-drawn pumper-truck on the way out to a three-alarmer. I think the treatment for concussions back then consisted of rubbing dirt on the bump.
An article in the March 12, 1866 Public Ledger said, “[Friendship Fire Company] intend[s] to erect a handsome building, four stories high.” The May 7th Evening Telegraph added some more detail, “… with French roof,  feet-front and  feet deep. The principal room will be [35 by 65] feet. No expense will be spared to make the building complete in all respects.”
Back then, Philly didn’t have an organized, paid fire department, so property owners contracted with private fire fighting companies. If you didn’t have a contract, the companies often would battle over the rights to put out your house fire in order collect the insurance money, even cutting each other’s hoses in the process. The Evening Bulletin once retrospectively characterized the situation as, “Hoodlums ran fire companies.”
But apparently the original “Feeling the Bern” came in the 1860s and was actually more like “Feeling the Burn.” The City “socialized” fire protection on March 15, 1871 and Friendship was incorporated into the city’s new professional department as Ladder 3 (now located at 2422 N. 2nd Street).
After Friendship moved to a new hose house in the 1870s, 2200 Norris Street became a whore house, allegedly. Little is known about the time that the building served as a brothel, except that it was reportedly, well, a brothel, according to a recent owner. It post-dates the infamous, “Guide to the Stranger” a “bed house” pocket guide booklet for visitors to Philly, so, like most of the time with a rub-n-tug, we’ll just have to imagine.
Not long after the building was pimped out, it served as a post for the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), which was basically a VFW for Civil War veterans. Post 51 was founded in 1874 and named after Captain Philip R. Schuyler, a Philadelphian who was mortally wounded in the Battle of Antietam when he was about 22 years old.
Most records of Post 51 are kept at the The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum is located in nearby Frankford and they have much of the swag on site.
The G.A.R. Museum has one photo of the building on-hand. According to Andy Waskie, the museum historian, who volunteers there and teaches at Temple University,, it is from about 1898. It depicts an army medical unit in Spanish-American War uniforms lined up in front of the building and receiving a salute from the old veterans of the Civil War, who can be seen in the windows of the building. You can visit the museum other G.A.R. related stuff from the River Wards. They also have Abe Lincoln’s actually blood. For real.
Those who frequented Post 51 seemed to be a fun-loving bunch and were active participants in the annual G.A.R. conferences held across the nation. Several out-of-town publications saw fit to acknowledge the Post 51 members’ musical abilities and enthusiasm at the events.
They were also a loyal lot. In 1897, one of their members, a police officer named Harold Spray, was sentenced to three years at Eastern State Penitentiary for larceny. The crew banded together, showed up en masse to the Board of Pardons hearing in Harrisburg and forced the Governor to release their veteran brother based on circumstantial evidence. It was apparently unheard of at the time to get a pardon for low-level crime.
The G.A.R. guys took advantage of the splendor that Friendship Fire’s “no expense will be spared” attitude provided and rented out the hall to various groups. One meeting was actually noted by the Public Ledger in 1868 regarding a unionization attempt focused on trying to get brick hod carriers wages on par with plasterer hod carriers wages. What’s a brick hod and why do people carry it? How should I know? Just kidding, it’s a three-sided box that holds bricks and it’s like really hard to hold and carry or something. Sorry, that’s all I got.
Post 51 eventually relocated and the building became a Post Office for a few decades. Wait until you here all the great stories about the years it was a Post Office. No, seriously, wait. Wait for someone to have nothing else to do but tell you century-old anecdotes about a neighborhood Post Office. I actually went to the National Archives building in Philly and the historians there looked at me like I had three heads when I told them I wanted to find out about a neighborhood Post Office. And they had nothing.
Eventually someone looked at the building and thought something like, “You know what? This would be an awesome place to rebuild worn out electric motors and stuff like that.” So he applied for the zoning variance in 1964. He also asked for a variance to make canvas bags for some odd reason. And for some even more odd reason, Philly approved the motor variance at that time, but not the canvas bags. This city is so weird. You just know it had to be that some councilman’s brother-in-law made canvas bags too. Anyways, the owner of the building stayed around for 50 years re-winding electric motors under the name Ampere Electric until he finally couldn’t compete with child labor or something and sold it to a developer.
Today, a new developer is turning the space into residential units with a large commercial space. And guess what? They’re preserving and restoring the exterior! They actually applied for approval of their planned alterations to the Historical Society and got the “a-okay.” One variance is the addition of a pilot house so an elevator could be installed for access to the roof deck. Believe it or not, elevator motor’s were one of Ampere’s specialties.