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Elfreth’s Alley rowhouse showcases history inside and out

Many homeowners on Philadelphia's oldest street have colonial-era furnishings. Homeowners George Case and Neil Frauenglass are a bit more eclectic.

Neil Frauenglass (left) and George Case have retained stone floors and exposed brick in their rowhouse on Philadelphia's historic Elfreth's Alley.
Neil Frauenglass (left) and George Case have retained stone floors and exposed brick in their rowhouse on Philadelphia's historic Elfreth's Alley.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

New Yorkers George Case and Neil Frauenglass came to Philadelphia four years ago to visit a friend, and "we fell in love with the city's 18th-century architecture, its independent businesses, parks and people," Case says — "not to mention the coffee was really good everywhere we went."

Two months later, the men moved to a three-story brick rowhouse on Philadelphia's Elfreth's Alley, a rare example of 18th-century working class life. The street is a National Historical Landmark.

Case and Frauenglass' 1,500-square-foot home was built in 1757 and expanded sometime in the 19th century. It has a living room, dining room, kitchen and garden on the first level; two bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, and a dormer used for storage on the third. The house has two wood-burning fireplaces and pine floors throughout.

A previous owner had updated bathrooms and recently remodeled the kitchen, which features radiant heat under a slate floor, glass-doored white cabinets, a large stainless-steel fridge, and a six-burner, two-oven stove, which Frauenglass loves. The new owners just had to repair the roof and paint walls in what a friend calls "50 shades of white."

Because of  the alley's historic designation, the 32 houses there have retained their Colonial  exteriors. Many homeowners also have Colonial-era furnishings. Case and Frauenglass have chosen to be more eclectic.

Items they found shopping in New England and locally span three centuries. Two bedsteads with medieval carved headboards date from the 1600s. Because the staircase is narrow and winding, "we had to take out a window and hoist them upstairs," Frauenglass says.

A large depiction of an ethereal man in the living room was painted by Alain James Martin in 1988. A colorful modern abstract, painted by Robert Beauchamp, hangs on the exposed brick in the dining room. A framed 18th-century floral crewel embroidery hangs on a nearby wall. China and pottery in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house are a mixture of 18th- and 19th-century finds and contemporary pieces purchased at the Clay Studio, located next door to Elfreth's Alley.

In the living room, two vintage armchairs flank a handsome Biedermeier chest from the early 19th century.

Then there are all the curious objects the men have collected, such as the russet paper disk  above the living room mantle, which was once a cap for a late-19th-century grain bin. A metal sculpture Frauenglass calls a "whatsit" decorating an old trunk was probably a yarn winder, according to Case. Three spiky orange wood rectangles in the guest bedroom are Shaker cornhuskers.  Milk pails once hung from the ladder-like object in the dining room. Case likes the juxtaposition of the old ladder and the new glass dining table.  In the narrow room, Frauenglass says, "the glass table doesn't take up visual space."

A rustic wooden bowl on the table may have once been a buggy seat. Repurposing utilitarian items seems appropriate in a house on Elfreth's Alley, where original owners were tradesmen or women running businesses from their front parlors.

Frauenglass, 44, managing director for Tierney, a marketing agency in Philadelphia, and Case, 50, a real estate agent for Halstead Manhattan and Elfant Wissahickon in Philadelphia, are more than just Old City residents; they have become active in the community. Frauenglass is president of the Elfreth's Alley Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the street.

Last year, Frauenglass and Case opened a shop called 36 Craven in Old City, offering a selection of artwork, antiques and textiles. The name references historic Philadelphia in an oblique way. For 16 years before the Revolution, Ben Franklin rented rooms in a house at 36 Craven St. in London while he was an emissary representing the American colonies.

When Case stages his real estate listings, he borrows from the shop and sometimes from his own home. He says he wants to show young buyers that nicked and bruised vintage furniture "is easy to live with" and can be attractive in a sleek high-rise apartment as well as in a Colonial rowhouse on Elfreth's Alley.

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