About the Tour

Our theme this year is Old Places, New Spaces. Since the first house tour some 25+ years ago, Harlem in general and the Mount Morris Park area in particular have seen both thoughtful new builds and the restoration of iconic neighborhood treasures. This tour will take you inside some of each − from cutting-edge contemporaries and creative updates to classic elegance that retains the glamour of a bygone era and eclectic combinations that meld bits of all the best. In short, the places and spaces that we call home.

Stop #10 on the map - Casa Frela Gallery / Lawrence Rodriguez

Located at 47 West 119th Street, between Lenox and 5th Ave.
Behind the burly Beaux-Arts door, Casa Frela exudes New Age aromas from the herbs and scented soaps, part of the eclectic array of urban artisan activities Lawrence Rodriguez loves. Frela means greetings with spiritual overtones in Yaqui, and owner Rodriguez dubbed his renovated 1885 brownstone that in honor of his Indian heritage. The landmarked house was designed by McKim, Mead and White and survived some rough years as a boarding house. Notice the elegant twisted spindles of the wrought-iron railing and the classical grace of the arched window. “The large panes go all the way up, going past the fixed glass behind the scrolled iron window guard,” says Rodriguez, which he thinks might be due to the fact that the builder working for the architects created the house for himself. Rodriguez has enthusiastically researched the history of the place, and discovered the original sale of the land to a carpenter named James C. Miller, who worked for the famous architects.

Miller paid $2,416.67 for the empty lot and stayed long enough to see his daughter married there in 1889. By the 1920s a Rabbi owned the place, reflecting the migration of prosperous Jews from the Lower East Side to the more prestigious neighborhood of Mount Morris Park. Rev. Adolph Spiegel had been born in Germany, and coincidentally, Rodriguez was living in Frankfurt, Germany when he bought the house with his husband. He says that the enormous green velvet curtains that hang in the vestibule to block drafts from the historic door were an idea borrowed from German customs of using heavy drapes as insulation.

Already by the 1930s, the row house had been converted from a middle-class single family home to a rooming house. When Rodriguez began renovating in 2005, he discovered old newspapers from the 1930s stuffed in the makeshift walls that divided small rooms. A metal sign that warned only one occupant was allowed testified to landlords’ attempts to maximize the rental income, and to the meager means of the renters crammed in the tiny cut-up spaces.
As the house stood closed and empty in the 1980s, rain poured through holes in the roof, destroying much of the interior wood, staircases and detail. So, Rodriguez opted for clean, open light spaces with a stark framing of what original elements did survive. Several handsome period fireplaces have their original glazed tiles in 1880s colors, and elaborately cast fireboxes. In the upstairs study with a marvelous open view of the back garden where Rodriguez grows hops to brew beer, the fireplace remains with all its patina — many layers of chipped paint speaking in the language of changing taste over the years. Behind the study, a grand entryway moved from the downstairs hall opens into a “period bedroom” with recreated detail and walls painted to echo the original fireplace muted yellow tiles.
Kathleen Hulser