Last fall, singer Sarah Elizabeth Charles and pianist Jarrett Cherner released their album Tone, a project which they’d worked on over four years. “Our first album together as a duo recording, some of it we finished here” during lockdown, Cherner says. Their newly-renovated apartment in Fort Greene happened to be perfect for their pandemic needs.
Since 2015, they’d been living together in Crown Heights, in Cherner’s one-bedroom rental. They wanted a music room which could accommodate Cherner’s 1975 Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. So they went apartment shopping.
It took a minute. “I spent a lot of time biking around Brooklyn on Saturdays and Sundays,” Charles says. “It wasn’t Jarrett’s favorite thing to do,” she says, laughing. “I probably saw over 50 apartments.”
One of the things that Charles enjoyed about the hunt was seeing the ways in which other people approached renovations. “We saw one where someone had put tiles up one side of the tub, and I made a note that if we got an apartment with a bathtub, I really wanted to do that.”
The apartment that finally caught Cherner’s eye didn’t immediately register as a winner with Charles. It was a walk-up built in the late-1980s, with eight-foot ceilings and strangely mismatched floors. But it was a three-bedroom in a good location that they could afford, and Cherner had a vision: Why not combine two of the bedrooms into a studio?
They enlisted architect Sarah Jacoby to do the renovation. The plan, according to Jacoby, was straightforward enough: “change finishes (floor and ceiling), re-proportion the bathroom, open up the kitchen, but then the really big thing was that he needed to get his grand piano in, which was a challenge.”
As it turns out, the building was constructed of concrete, Jacoby says, which meant “suddenly we needed to put in a steel beam for reinforcement.” Getting the piano in was a whole other set of problems to solve. “We hired professional movers to get the piano up three flights of stairs,” Cherner says. “All M&H pianos have a steel ‘tension resonator’ underneath them which adds to the weight. I think the piano weighs around 800 pounds.”
Needless to say, they also soundproofed the wall so they would not disturb their neighbors.
Getting rid of the “popcorn” ceilings was a big improvement. “I think it’s one of the biggest details aesthetically for the apartment,” Cherner says. Also: “There were three different types of flooring in the apartment. So we removed all of them and put in one new wood floor.”
Jacoby’s opening up the kitchen also made a huge difference. But lightening the new floors and countertops has given the apartment fresh life. One contractor wanted to lower the ceiling to be able to install ceiling lights, but they found a contractor who had done work in the building and who knew that the concrete slabs were hollow, so Cherner was able to puncture small holes in it and run wires to put in flat LED light.
And they learned a lot about how renovation works in the city. “It was fascinating to realize that the quotes we got for the same work, the highest was six times the lowest, for the same work,” Cherner says. The architect recommendation came from his cousin, who had already worked with her, and one of his close friends, who had gone to school with her at Harvard, so that made them comfortable. Needing the steel beam was a bit of a “bummer,” he says. “It added a delay and sizable expense to get a civil engineer to draw up plans to put an I-beam across the ceiling to support the cement slabs that make up the ceiling.”
He added: “I will say I think I also took on the project as a part-time job, and so a lot of that cost that we ended up saving, you could say I burned that through being a project manager for seven months. I was really hands-on, ordering all the supplies, going to the apartment most days.”
“With Jarrett managing the project,” Charles says, “a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this, but it’s kind of our baby in a way.”