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Westbeth, A Place That Matters

westbeth west village

Westbeth was nominated to the Census of Places that Matter for both its past role as the home of Bell Laboratories and its current role as a thriving artists’ housing project. Occupying the entire block bounded by West, Bank, Washington, and Bethune Streets, Westbeth is a remnant from the time when the Greenwich Village waterfront was an industrial neighborhood and is an early example of the rebirth of industrial spaces for artists’ live-work housing.

The Bell Laboratories, originally known as Western Electric and part of the larger American Telegraph & Telephone Company (AT&T), moved its headquarters to a newly-constructed building on West and Bethune Streets in 1898.  Over the years, the company expanded on the block while developing some of the most important technological advances of the first half of the twentieth century. These include the transistor, the transmission for both black and white and color television, high fidelity recording, “talkie” movies, the transoceanic telephone cable, and lasers, among many others.  In 1966, Bell Laboratories relocated its facilities to New Jersey, leaving the New York City complex vacant.

The next chapter in the complex’s history started in 1968 when the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts partnered to purchase the former Bell Labs in order to develop artists’ housing.  The result, Westbeth, was the first federally-subsidized artists’ housing project in the United States, and today, it is still the largest.  Although the adaptive reuse of historic industrial complexes for artists’ live-work spaces is a now common idea, in the 1960s the trend was still in infancy and was not widely accepted by American developers, planners, and other decision-makers.  Westbeth was truly a ground-breaking idea for its time.

A young, then-unknown architect, Richard Meier, was hired for the conversion, one of his first commissions.  Meier created 383 studio, 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom apartments in the complex, and included other amenities like a theater, a gallery, and community spaces.  For the most part, Meier left the architecture of industrial buildings unchanged, except for the creation of a now-iconic courtyard, the introduction modern architectural features in select places, and the insertion of a plaza.  Westbeth opened in 1970, and over the last forty years, it has housed painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, and other visual and performance artists.  John Scofield, Diane Arbus, and Moses Gunn are just some of the artists who have lived in Westbeth.

The success of Westbeth inspired the city and state to develop incentives and polices to reuse manufacturing and industrial buildings that were functionally obsolete. Across the city, buildings were retained and when appropriate, reused for other uses. Neighborhoods like SoHo and Tribeca were completely reborn by re-purposing former industrial lofts.

Westbeth’s significance as the home of the Bell Laboratories has long been recognized.  The 1898 building on West and Bethune Streets was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975.  However, the building’s history as an artists’ complex has only been more recently acclaimed.  Last year, the entire site was listed on the National Register. The nomination, written by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart and sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, extensively outlines Westbeth’s pioneering founding and the Richard Meier conversion.  In addition, last week, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the individual landmark designation of Westbeth, recognizing both eras of the complex’s significance.