The building is not going to win any beauty contests. It’s a blocklong brick box that looks like a gigantic, ill-conceived layer cake, with horizontal chocolate and vanilla stripes punctuated by smallish windows. Zero ornamentation. Definitely not a thing of beauty.
“It’s the ugliest building in all of Chelsea,” says John Ruggirello with undisguised glee.
“No,” counters his wife, Marie, “it’s the ugliest building in all of New York City. It’s an eyesore.”
“But when we bought our apartment here in 1987,” Ruggirello adds, “we said we won’t have to look at the building when we’re inside our apartment. Now it doesn’t even look that bad to us.”
As a matter of fact, Chadwin House, the 7-story, 110-unit condominium at 140 Seventh Avenue (18th Street), is looking pretty good these days, owing in large part to Ruggirello’s three decades of service on the condo board and his tireless efforts to keep the building clean, democratic, functional, and, above all, affordable. That last goal gets more difficult every year, he says, thanks to a city government that seems to enjoy burdening co-op and condo boards with costly regulations and taxes.
“I try to keep it affordable for all the people in the building – and for Marie and me,” says Ruggirello, now 68, his silver hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. “When we moved in, we had certain services. All we want to do is improve those things, rather than add to them. But it’s hard to keep it affordable because the cost of everything keeps going up, and the city makes it hard. Look at the new elevator regulations. Because the city was negligent and someone died in a housing-project accident, the city goes overboard. Same with the sidewalk sheds.”
Speaking of the unloved sidewalk shed, Chadwin House just underwent its mandatory cycle of facade repairs under Local Law 11, a job that was supposed to take one year but stretched to two – because the contractor was overextended and couldn’t meet deadlines. Ruggirello and his six fellow board members had no choice but to impose an assessment to cover the unexpected cost overruns.
The board also raises the common charges by a few percentage points every year to make sure the reserve fund stays healthy. This board is made up of hard-nosed realists. “We hash out every dime,” Ruggirello says.
An Art Form Vanishes
If a single thread runs through John Ruggirello’s life, it’s his ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Growing up on Staten Island, he dreamed of following the footsteps of his father, uncle, cousin, and brother and becoming a firefighter. But he had been wearing glasses since third grade, and he flunked the vision test. So he fell back on another dream – to become an artist. He studied drawing and painting at Marycrest College in Davenport, Iowa, where he wound up dating his roommate’s ex-girlfriend, Marie Carson, a fellow aspiring artist. They married, and soon became parents of a son, Andrew.
While continuing his studies to become an art teacher, Ruggirello managed the shoe department in chain store before getting hired as a sign painter, a job that fed off his artistic streak and his work ethic. All the while, the newlyweds were subscribing to The Village Voice, a tenuous tie to Ruggirello’s hometown. After a decade in the Midwest, the family finally moved to Staten Island to be near Ruggirello’s parents.
John had been working as a sign painter for a decade when the Ruggirellos bought their apartment in Chadwin House, and he kept painting everything from the sides of buildings to store windows and truck doors while Marie was making good money as a photo-retoucher. Then along came computers, killing both crafts. “I got to be one of the best hand-painters in town,” Ruggirello says, “and then suddenly the art form was gone.”
Once again, it was time to adapt. With Marie in the lead, the Ruggirellos opened Atomic Signs, which is still going strong today thanks to their mastery of computer-cut vinyl. Their clients include the fashion designers Ralph Lauren and Issey Miyake and the fine artists Lawrence Weiner and Mel Bochner. “I just love working with artists – even though you don’t get paid any more than you get paid painting a truck,” Ruggirello says. “It’s the field Marie and I came out of, and it brings us closer to the art world. And I think our art background helps the artists.”
In his three decades living in Chadwin House, Ruggirello has seen the building and the neighborhood – the entire city – undergo staggering change. When he and Marie arrived, the building was home to teachers, artists, ambulance drivers, city employees, a rabbi. Then came a major recession, the AIDS epidemic, boom years, another recession, and today’s galloping prosperity. Young couples with families and people working in finance are typical buyers at Chadwin House today.
Through all the changes, though, Ruggirello says one thing has remained unchanged. It goes back to his grandfather, who immigrated from Sicily, and his father, the firefighter. “Whatever they had to do, that was what they did,” Ruggirello says. “Same with me. I’ve always adapted, and I’ve always worked.”