By Krista Gampper
Charlie Wachtel (aka @charlie.brownstone) describes his life as a cross between This Old House, Million Dollar Listing, American Pickers, and The Joy of Painting. Which is to say he’s a gifted and versatile housing expert in everything from interior design and house construction to historic brownstone restorations and home renovations. With a stockpile of stunning properties across Brooklyn, including a magnificent multi-room manse that has been sitting vacant since 2014, it’s no surprise Charlie’s path eventually crossed with Spring Street’s when Amy and Patrick were looking for a cozy yet ramshackle spot to host a wintry brunch in December of 2016.
Lawyer-Turned-Property Artiste-Turned-Spring Street Member Charlie, grinning at Initiation in January of 2017.
Just look at this beautiful original woodwork.
Before his current life renovating and restoring houses into modern day beauties, Charlie was in another realm entirely — he worked for years as an entertainment lawyer at a big firm. When that lifestyle ceased to be rewarding, he teamed up with his brother and started developing real estate around Brooklyn. Eventually, he went solo, working on smaller single-family style houses and brownstones. “This particular property I was working on was a crazy old mansion that sort of looked like the Addams family had moved to Brooklyn Heights,” says Charlie of the decrepit pre-Civil War-era single-family home that was turned into a single room occupancy rooming house in the 1950s. (“It was legitimately scary,” Amy confirms.)
A gussied-up mantle moment at Brooklyn Brunch.
Besides the ghosts of tenants past, the house had some pretty serious issues. “It was literally crumbling to the ground,” says Charlie. Some of the rooms were terrifying, with mysterious handprints on the walls, while others were downright dangerous, with stacks of tiles that would disintegrate at the slightest whisper of movement. There was no running water and barely enough electricity to keep the lights on. The plumbing was virtually nonexistent, which meant the bathrooms were nonexistent, too. This created a seemingly insurmountable issue, particularly because the simple solutions simply wouldn’t do.
“Port-a-potties wouldn't fit through the front door. The closest public bathroom was several blocks away, and getting a bathroom to function within the house for a day would have been an impossible feat of plumbing and engineering,” Charlie says. “As of midnight the night prior, Patrick and I were texting for dear life still trying to figure out a solution for when the poor crowds that were about to indulge in a morning of gourmet coffee, quiche, and all-you-can-drink Bloody Marys would inevitably feel the urge.” This is when, out of nowhere, Charlie received a text from the next-door neighbor, Dr. Fishman, offering the services of his office washroom. (“It was,” Patrick says, “a holiday miracle.”)
Wintry afternoon delights aplenty included singing, snacking, and sipping.
With just a quick afternoon of setup, including countless candles, a few great pieces of borrowed furniture (c/o Patina), and some strategically placed holiday greenery, styled by Anthony D’Argenzio of Zio & Sons, the place went from haunted to heavenly. “Sometimes you just have to jump into the fire and trust that if you’re willing to work hard and you’re not too proud to learn, you can figure most things out,” Charlie says. “It doesn’t hurt to work with talented and inspiring people, either. That’s my favorite part.”
Creativity through chaos is an idea that perhaps isn’t too dissimilar from what Charlie hopes to do with his own work in renovations and restorations. He handles every part of each one of his projects, with his favorite part being the “dirty-hands stuff.” While the desk work is crucial to the business, Charlie says the field work is more rewarding, as the progress is tangible and the results, visible
For his recent projects, Charlie has moved deeper into Brooklyn, to a landmarked neighborhood called Prospect Lefferts Gardens. “The turn-of-the-century homes there are these unbelievable single family brownstones that are ready for a good restoration. The details are museum-quality and impossible to recreate, so they’d be awful to get rid of. Some of these traditional houses, I basically pay for the original woodwork; the house just comes with it,” says Charlie. “To me if these houses are done well, they should be like giant livable sculptures. If you can get 2017 construction behind 1907 walls, then that becomes something really special.”
Custom calligraphy by @raechild.
Part of the reward of creating such special spaces is selling them off, too, even if that’s Charlie’s least favorite part. “I put so much of myself into these houses, and then they sell. I consider it a weird version of real estate development, which is more like community development, where the projects have impact beyond their own walls,” says Charlie. “Thankfully, I tend to stay close with the people who buy my houses, so it’s like I get to keep tabs on all my little (or big) house-babies.”
If only all homes featured Charlie's elegant workmanship.
So whatever happened to that big, beautiful brownstone house-baby from our Brooklyn Brunch? “In a word, nothing! The house is currently exactly as it was left the morning after that wonderful brunch,” Charlie says, explaining that new and improved redesign plans are currently under city review. “If you look hard enough, you may even find odd bits of leftover garland hiding in a few corners…”