T 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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