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October 14, 2001


Harlem: Taking a Brick Shell And Making It a House


John W. Wheeler for The New York Times
Jeannette McClennan and Bill Rohlfing with sons (from left), Grant, Derrick and Phillip, in Harlem home.

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Harlem (NY)

John W. Wheeler for The New York Times
Main floor, left, has open living area.

John W. Wheeler for The New York Times
Children's room has beds lined up.

AT one point, Bill Rohlfing and Jeannette McClennan decided it was time to try the suburbs. They gave up their apartment on the Upper West Side and moved with their children to Pelham, just north of the city in Westchester County. They weren't enamored of it, but not long after, work opportunities took them to Alexandria, Va., and then Denver.

Two years ago, they moved back to Manhattan and settled into a large apartment on 100th Street near Riverside Drive. They rented, because before making a commitment they wanted to make sure they really could raise three boys in Manhattan.

They decided they could. They liked the variety of schools and people, as well as the convenience. "I like being able to leave the office and be at a performance, or on a school trip, without taking the whole day," said Ms. McClennan, the president of Ogilvy Interactive North America, which handles Web sites, Internet advertising and other new technology for Ogilvy & Mather's advertising clients in North America.

Besides, said Mr. Rohlfing, who has worked as a sculptor, musician, set designer and most recently creative director for Giant Step, part of the Leo Burnett advertising agency: "I don't shave. I don't have a blue blazer." The suburbs don't seem to suit him.

So they started looking, mainly at large apartments on the Upper West Side, where their children were in school, and discovered that they would have to pay between $800,000 and $1.5 million for the same amount of space they were renting space they already found too cramped. "We had 1,200 square feet, and we barely fit," said Ms. McClennan, adding that they had bicycles filling the foyer and shelves going up every wall. Then one day they drove by some buildings in Harlem that were just shells, and those empty buildings, some so burned out you could see through to the back yard, started looking pretty good.

Because he had run a set-production company, Mr. Rohlfing had experience with construction crews, and they felt sure they could take on a shell. But just to have a comparison, they began looking at intact houses in Harlem, the historic ones with moldings and fireplaces. Those homes, though, usually needed a lot of plumbing and electrical updating.

"We were wondering whether we should get involved with restoring something when we could just start fresh," Mr. Rohlfing said. In October, they happened to see a shell on 118th Street near Lenox Avenue, and they were intrigued. It was only two subway stops north of the Upper West Side, on the No. 2 or 3 line, and a quick car ride to their children's schools. They liked the fact that the house was in the same school district and that their middle son could continue going to P.S. 75 on West 96th Street. (Their oldest has graduated from P.S. 75 and is in private school; the youngest hasn't started school.)

The house was 20 feet wide, which meant they could create the open loftlike space they wanted. Mr. Rohlfing had no trouble envisioning the finished house. "That was a clear advantage," Ms. McClennan said, although "our friends thought we were out of our minds."

They didn't proceed without problems, but when they remember them, they skip over them as if they were mere bumps in the road, when in fact they were obstacles that would have stopped a lot of people.

They bought their house from the Family Preservation Center, a Long Island organization that was involved in the recent federal home mortgage scandal, which led to several indictments. In the scandal, several hundred properties in Harlem and Brooklyn were part of schemes to defraud a program intended to foster homeownership in low-income neighborhoods. Participants in the schemes bought properties and then quickly resold them at vastly inflated prices, pocketing money that was intended for repairs.

There were liens on their house, and the true ownership of the building was not always clear, nor was the title. The mess was untangled, Mr. Rohlfing said, only through great help from their real estate broker, Yolanda Chang, who now has her own agency; their lawyer, Gwen Cherry; and Steve Wall, who was then at the Dime Savings Bank.

Finally, after seeing the house last October, they closed in January. The price was $425,000.

Calling it a house, of course, was a stretch. Although it had an imposing curved facade, they drove up there the day of the closing and confronted what they had done. "We looked at it and thought, here's our pile of bricks," Ms. McClennan said.

Their house is now like a loft on four floors, with wide-open spaces, exposed-brick walls and, on the parlor floor, a concrete and bluestone fireplace designed by Mr. Rohlfing that is beautifully sculptural, the focal point of the spare room, so spare that the three boys can ride their scooters unhindered by anything more than a sofa and one chair.

IN addition to the long open living area, the parlor floor has a dining room table and chairs, and, in the long and narrow extension added at one point to the house, a kitchen with cabinets of birch fronted with frosted glass. On the second floor, they have built the master bedroom, an office, a walk-in closet as big as many bedrooms in Manhattan, and a large bathroom, with a honey-colored onyx counter, maple cabinets, a whirlpool tub and a blue-tiled shower.

The third floor is a child's fantasy, with three beds lined up in the center, like the three little bears. At the front end is a play area and toward the back, a study area with desks and computers.

There is a large bathroom with two enclosed toilets, two showers, and even a laundry chute so they can send their clothes to the washer and dryer downstairs.

"We wanted to make it like a dorm," Ms. McClennan said, for Phillip, 10, Derrick, 8, and Grant, 3. It is also like a family room. "They let us come up and hang out with them," she said. On the ground floor, which they are not yet using, they plan to set up living quarters for a soon-to- arrive au pair. They still don't have heat, because they are waiting for Consolidated Edison to get permission from the city to turn on the gas.

By the time they are finished, Mr. Rohlfing said, the house will have cost them about $925,000, which he considers a bargain. "For that, I could buy a two-bedroom on 100th Street," he said. He was laid off from Giant Step last May. It proved to be good timing, because he had the time to oversee the construction and to work closely with the contractor. He has so enjoyed the process that he is becoming a developer, focusing on Harlem.

"It's like heaven," he said, with beautiful buildings, open skies and wide main streets. "And most of the people I've met are very friendly."

He said he's not at all deterred by the attack on New York. He first moved to the city in 1974, to go to art school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and he accepts that the city goes through cycles. "I've seen racial issues, I've seen the city when it was broke," he said. "The city has changed so much." But to him it is the place to be.

"I've always wanted to raise my kids in the city," he said. "Where else is there?"нн

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