A Landmark Anniversary for Westbeth

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Image from fineartamerica.com

Four years ago this Sunday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) voted unanimously to landmark Westbeth, following through on a promise made eleven years ago to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and other community groups working to extend landmark protections in the Far West Village.  In 2009, GVSHP’s nomination of Westbeth was accepted by the New York State Historic Preservation Office and the complex was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, providing opportunities for grants and loans to help with restoration and maintenance of the complex.

Formerly the Bell Telephone Laboratories Complex, this group of buildings takes up an entire city block and is significant not only as the former home to one of the world’s most prestigious telecommunications research organizations, but also later as the first and largest publicly- and privately-funded artists’ housing project in the United States, as well as a pioneering large-scale industrial rehabilitation project.

The oldest structure in the complex is 445-453 West Street, formerly Hook’s Steam-powered Factory Building.  It was built circa 1860 in the vernacular Italianate style and is one of the few extant nineteenth century industrial buildings along the Hudson River waterfront.  The structure housed a number of manufacturing companies until 1927 when the property including 445-465 West Street, plus three other non-extant structures, was leased by Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Beginning in 1896, the Western Electric Company of Illinois began to buy parcels of land in the Far West Village at West Street.  The company built an office and factory building for telephone related equipment at 455-465 West Street, 149 Bank Street and 734-742 Washington Street. Built between 1896 and 1903, it was designed by Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz in a restrained neo-Classical style and clad in buff-colored brick and terracotta.

By 1913 the factory building no longer served as a manufacturing plant but rather as the headquarters of Western Electric’s Engineering Department.  In 1925, it became Bell Telephone Laboratories for research and development for both the American Telegraph & Telephone Company (AT&T) and Western Electric Company following the launch of Bell Labs, a joint venture by both companies.  The Bell Labs facilities were expanded with the construction of 744-754 Washington Street (1924 and 1926), designed by McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin as well as the incorporation of 445-453 West Street into the complex. In 1929 151 Bank Street was constructed in the Moderne style for Bell Labs which served as a pioneering experimental sound and motion picture studio.  This complex would be the site of countless technological innovations, the most famous of which was the transistor.  Bell Labs ceased use of this complex in 1966.

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The Richard Meier-designed fire escape balconies at Westbeth’s inner courtyard. Photo courtesy of Bob Estremera.

Following Bell Labs exit from the complex, Roger L. Stevens, first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, conceived of the complex as a pilot project of subsidized, affordable studio living quarters for artists.  This was substantially supported and inaugurated by the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the complex was converted into Westbeth Artists’ Housing in 1968-70.  This was the first large-scale adaptive re-use of an industrial building for residential purposes and one of the first residential developments along the Greenwich Village waterfront. It was designed by Richard Meier and was his first major work.  The complex features 383 residential and work studio units, as well as gallery, performance and commercial spaces and a park.  Since its transformation to artists’ housing, Diane Arbus, Merce Cunningham, Moses Gunn, Hans Haacke, and Gil Evans, among countless other artists, lived or worked at Westbeth. Westbeth remains an affordable housing complex for more than 350 working artists, providing live/work spaces, studios, and galleries.

For more information on the history of the site, you may view the NYC LPC designation report HERE or the State and National Registers of Historic Places nomination form HERE.  Also, you can access oral histories conducted by GVSHP with many of the key figures behind Westbeth’s founding HERE.  Click HERE to see more about the first-of-its-kind artists loft tour of Westbeth which GVSHP and the Westbeth Artists Residents Council held in 2010, marking Westbeth’s 40th anniversary and GVSHP’s 30th, which showcased dozens of artists’ collections and their Richard Meier-designed live/work spaces.

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