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In a Harlem Condo, a Do-It-Yourself Attitude Goes a Long Way

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A living area with a large tan couch, a patterned area rug, tables, and works of art on the wall.
For the most part, the McNellis home is full of repurposed, DIY furniture, but this particular couch, from Dune, was one of the few splurges the couple indulged in.

Welcome to House Calls, a recurring feature in which Curbed tours New Yorkers' lovely, offbeat, or otherwise awesome homes. Think your space should be featured next? Drop us a line.


[Allison and Andrew McNellis at their two-bedroom condo in Harlem. All photos by Max Touhey for Curbed.]

As a kid, Allison McNellis had a fascination with rearranging furniture in dollhouses. Even the smallest tweaks could alter the way a particular space felt to her. That same sense of adventure and passion carried over into adulthood, and today, she continues to imbue spaces in her home with her unique brand of creativity. Allison found the perfect partner in her husband, Andrew McNellis who contributes to and drives that energy to recreate spaces, including their two-bedroom Harlem home.




Two years ago, the couple renovated an otherwise drab condo in Harlem , turning it into a gorgeous two-bedroom abode full of repurposed, DIY furniture, artworks created by their friends and up and coming artists, and a space that is flooded with sunlight.

Allison and Andrew met more than a decade ago when she was a student at Barnard and he at Columbia. Before finding their home in Harlem, the couple rented an apartment in Hell's Kitchen for five years. But as rents kept rising, the couple wanted a place of their own in a neighborhood that had more of a sense of community.

Harlem wasn't the obvious choice. They first looked extensively on the Upper West Side, but when that didn't pan out, their broker pointed them to a building in Harlem. While at school, they had been close to the neighborhood, but didn't venture there often enough to know what it was like. But when they came to check out their place they were taken in instantly. The large number of restaurants, bars, and stores was a huge plus, but more than that, they noticed a friendly community—one that was more family oriented—and they knew then that Harlem was the place they would buy their first home. The neighborhood presented a cheaper alternative to parts of Brooklyn that a lot of their friends were moving to after college. But they're glad they didn't follow the herd. In Harlem, they've created unique space, become part of a close knit community, and found a place they call home.

"Harlem has a completely different vide, it is a little bit older, and it is more diverse, " Andrew explains. "Seeing that and being able to live in this neighborhood is a far better choice for us than living in Brooklyn."




But it wasn't all smooth sailing. They picked an apartment in their condo development, but someone else swooped in at the last moment, offered a significant amount more, and got the apartment instead. By then they were set on the building, so they waited till the next opening came up, and jumped on it instantly. Allison hadn't even seen the space when Andrew put down an offer for the apartment.

Their passion for DIY and creative arranging came in handy once the place was theirs. Allison did all the architectural drawings for the interiors, and they did much of the reno themselves: demolishing a few walls, converting a wall in the master bedroom into a row of closets, renovating the bathrooms. Based on appearance alone, the apartment looks like it's almost twice the size from what it was before.

Their home is brought to life with a series of creations that either the couple or their friends worked on. Allison worked with a friend to create their dining table, which is made out of reclaimed church floorboards from upstate New York. The cabinets in the kitchen are all from Ikea with custom handles and quartz composite finishes that makes the whole space seem more luxury condo and less, well, Ikea. For the doorbell box, Allison rejigged an old jewelry box, a clear box that lets you see the bell's mechanism at work. The coasters were made using old Cheetah tiles. The list is endless.

"If you use furniture well you don't know where its coming from, it dramatically reduces your cost and it's never obvious," notes Allison.




One of the couple's favorite pieces is a triptych that hangs above the kitchen table, created by their friend Jessica Sugerman. The streak of paint across three panels was made in such a way that the panels come off and can be transported without losing the essence of the painting. A portrait of the couple that hangs in the kitchen was created by another artist friend, Ariel Scarlett Bershadskaya, and is made with cut up pieces of The New Yorker.

Even the building the couple lives in is a work of art of sorts. While the building looks like an individual townhouse from the outside, it's actually a set of interconnected townhouses that have 35 condo units—they maintain the historic architectural characteristic of the neighborhood, but with couples like the McNellis' moving in, a lot of the apartments are replete with modern finishings.


· House Calls Archives [Curbed]