CHRISTMAS 1978 wasn't very merry in certain quarters of the East Village. Hard drugs, sold openly on street corners, were a present of choice for some. The air echoed with the wails of sirens, as hook and ladders put out fires set by addicts in dozens of abandoned buildings. As for good will toward men: the Ninth Precinct reported 54 assaults, 157 robberies and 4 murders for that December.
That month, on a particularly woebegone stretch of Avenue B, Roland Legiardi-Laura decided to buy a loft. The cost: $10,000 and 20 years of sweat equity. The reward: not just real estate, but a real sense of community.
This May, his building -- the former Tompkins Square Boys' Lodging House, the oldest surviving structure built for the homeless in New York -- was designated a city landmark, qualifying its owners for low-interest loans to restore its derelict facades. When that happens, the exterior will finally reflect the remarkable transformation that has taken place within. Today, the neighborhood sports new real estate developments on almost every block. But Mr. Legiardi-Laura's may be the most unusual of all.
A poet and filmmaker, Mr. Legiardi-Laura, 47, is perhaps best known as a director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the East Village institution he helped to revive after years of dormancy. His colorful curriculum vitae also includes ''Azul,'' a documentary he directed about the Nicaraguan passion for poetry, and founding Words to Go, a traveling troupe of poets who brought verse to museum steps and street corners.
Now, he is beginning work on a three-part documentary about the history and purpose of American public schooling. ''Roland is that rarest of modern social phenomena,'' said John Gatto, the 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year, who was the project's inspiration. ''He is a significant player in cultural and community affairs who's not beholden to institutions or corporations -- a citizen, in the Jeffersonian sense of the word.''
Mr. Legiardi-Laura is also the consummate autodidact, the sort who knows the ages of trees in Tompkins Square Park because he dug up the original survey maps. And he is passionate about the East Village. Asked what he likes about it, he replied, ''I'll give you a history of the neighborhood, briefly.'' Then he continued, straight-faced, ''Twelve thousand years ago. . . .''
Given his flair for the offbeat and his willingness to take risks, it is not surprising that he took on the renovation, not just of his own space, but of much of the 15,000-square-foot near-ruin enclosing it as well-- and with only the most basic construction skills. Necessity provided the goad: a developer forced him, and two roommates, out of the 7,000-square-foot NoHo loft they had been renting for $200 a month.
''I was about to sign a lease on a sweet little apartment on First Avenue,'' he recalled, ''and I took just one more look at the Village Voice, and there was an ad: Loft for sale; 2,000 square feet; $20,000. I thought, O.K., there's a zero in the wrong place. But I called up, and the ad was right, and it was this place.''
Built in 1886 by the Children's Aid Society, overlooking Tompkins Square Park from Eighth Street and Avenue B, the Boys' Lodging House is today the largest extant structure in the city designed entirely by Calvert Vaux, co-creator of Central Park. Here, newsboys and bootblacks, many orphaned, others with parents too poor or overburdened to care for them, could get a bath, a meal and a bed -- all for a nickel.
The nine Children's Aid Society structures designed by Vaux, Mr. Legiardi-Laura said, ''were built as edifices to impress,'' and his building's Victorian Gothic architecture, with its mansard roof and arched Venetian windows, neatly fits his droll description: ''A poor man's Dakota -- literally.''
In 1925, the house was sold to Darchei Noam, a Jewish study center, and then taken over, in the 1950's, by the East Side Hebrew Institute. But by 1975, with the neighborhood coming apart and hemorrhaging its Jewish population, the Hebrew Institute had moved out.
Three years later, the abandoned, decaying structure was acquired by Maximilian Olivas, a neighborhood resident, who planned to open a school. Lacking the finances to realize his vision, he ran the ad in the Voice, hoping to sell off several newly planned apartments as co-ops.
''This place had been stripped of everything you could carry out and sell for a fix,'' Mr. Legiardi-Laura said. ''All the copper wiring and piping, the radiators, the marble wainscoting in the stairwell, the stair railings and treads, the toilets and sinks -- everything.'' The space Mr. Olivas showed him, originally an open dormitory, had been converted by the Hebrew Institute into four classrooms accessed by a tiled hall. ''It was a mess,'' he said. ''There were leftover needles and fixings, the windows were all broken out.''
Still, he was smitten. ''I loved this building from the moment I saw it,'' he said. ''It was clear that it had value beyond its value as a residence. It had historical value, and value of place in the neighborhood.''
The problem was that Mr. Legiardi-Laura could not afford it. So he and Mr. Olivas struck a deal. For the loft, he would pay $10,000 and work off the rest by renovating the building and doing construction in Mr. Olivas's own space. ''I became, in effect, an indentured servant,'' Mr. Legiardi-Laura said.
Construction began in January 1979. Mr. Legiardi-Laura sledge-hammered his classroom walls, then carried ''a thousand buckets of rubble down the stairs.'' The 12 windows, enlarged to admit more light, took 48 bitterly cold days to complete. Often, he learned as he worked. ''And I learned the hard way. I'd plumb something, and flush the toilet, and water would come shooting out of the sink.''
At the same time, he reconstructed the building's main stairwell out of used parts, got the boiler running and installed an electrical system. Mr. Legiardi-Laura also built cabinets and sanded floors for Mr. Olivas, and fixed up others of the building's seven residential spaces. ''After that, I lived here for three years, basically, with the most minimal of amenities, before I could stand in the middle of this space and there not be a pile of dust and debris,'' he said.
It was a long haul in other ways. Mr. Legiardi-Laura counted 19 fires on the block that first summer. But, he said, with mordant humor, ''the drug dealers kept another pernicious class of people out -- developers.'' Most of his poor and working-class neighbors, he took pains to add, were in fact law-abiding citizens.
The home that eventually rose from the rubble represents, Mr. Legiardi-Laura said, ''an organic evolution based on necessity and availability.'' The style? ''East Village Eclectic.''
The bathroom and kitchen, formed from the first of the classrooms, resemble pie slices facing in opposite directions. In the bathroom, the floor was elevated to accommodate the water pipes; this in turn made it possible to put in a sunken tub. Mr. Legiardi-Laura incorporated an existing column into the shower, and added a high window both to expose the column's capital and to let in light. The old-fashioned high-tank toilet was, he recalled, ''the first fixture I got and the cheapest thing I could buy.'' Its rich blue in turn dictated the room's overall color scheme.
The kitchen widens steadily as it opens toward the living room, which Mr. Legiardi-Laura felt would make both spaces more inviting. Other decisions were less considered: the 42-inch sink height, half a foot taller than normal, was determined when, too exhausted to do more, he simply halved some leftover two-by-fours and built a base. A 500-pound cast-iron stove, which burns coal, wood and gas, was spotted in a Queens garage one day as Mr. Legiardi-Laura headed past on the back of a truck.
The principal living space, constructed from two classrooms, flows the entire 50-foot length of the loft and includes what Mr. Legiardi-Laura described as ''the world's only folding bedroom.'' The room, which is on wheels, takes 20 minutes to deconstruct and folds like a theater flat. Open, it creates a ''cozy little hearth area, which contains my only middle-class obsessions, my stereo system and television.''
Though it had been Mr. Legiardi-Laura's initial inspiration upon first seeing the space, the library, at the loft's opposite end, was not built for a decade. A pastiche of Wrightian and Japanese motifs designed with the architect Johanna Woodcock, the elegant nook is made from oak, cherry and padouk, a Malaysian hardwood. ''It's the place that nurtures my work,'' Mr. Legiardi-Laura said. ''And is the center of my home.''
The fourth classroom, now used as the office of the Fifth Night, the screenplay-reading series Mr. Legiardi-Laura began at the Nuyorican, remains untouched. But he has a plan. ''At some point in my life I'd like to be with someone and share my home with her,'' he said. ''For another person to have a valuable experience, they have to be able to make their mark, too.'' This raw space will be hers to transform.
Over time, as the space evolved, so did Mr. Legiardi-Laura's view of it, and of himself. ''In the 60's, there was a real debate,'' he said. ''Were you going to commit yourself to struggling against the evils abroad, or were you going to take care of the world around you? I made the choice that the life of my community was the way I could be most effective.''
An important component of that has been his loft, which he donates to causes and individuals that he supports. Half a dozen Latin American writers have given readings there; he was the host for a wake for the playwright Miguel Pinero, at which the idea of resuscitating the Nuyorican was born; and fund-raising beneficiaries have included the East Village Parks Conservancy, of which he is a member.
There have been more personal events, too. Allen Ginsberg officiated at a bar mitzvah in Mr. Legiardi-Laura's living room. And there are yearly Christmas parties for some 60 children of friends and neighbors.
Last February, when he made a presentation to the Landmarks Commission, Mr. Legiardi-Laura recalled the first night in his home, 21 years ago. ''It was a shell that had been pillaged by looters and junkies,'' he said. ''There was graffiti on the walls, the scars and smell of fires, and syringes strewn on the floors. But I do remember waking the next morning knowing that if there was such a thing as a building having a soul, this edifice was surely endowed with one.''
Today, the Village Voice ad would cite a price roughly 40 times the original. And Mr. Legiardi-Laura admits that his odyssey was not initially motivated by community spirit. ''Some part of me knew that the only way I was going to break out of the trap that had been laid for me, as someone other than the son of the wealthy, was to get a piece of the rock that was mine,'' he said.
But more came with that rock than real estate, and more was given back than manual labor. ''When I first got this place, if someone had said, 'You can have a pile of money and go buy yourself a finished loft on the Upper West Side, or you can have this place,' I think I would have gone for the money,'' he said. ''And I would have been much less of a human being as a result of that.''