American architect Richard Meier was born on this day in 1934. Over the course of his nearly sixty-year career Meier has designed countless buildings all over the world and received numerous prizes including the Pritzker Prize in Architecture in 1984, the AIA Gold Medal in 1997 and the Architizer Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. Arguably best known for the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, Meier had some of his earliest commissions right here in our neighborhood, involving adapting historic, industrial spaces for use by artists. One we got landmarked in 2011; the other we hope to save from the wrecking ball and get landmarked quite soon.
The larger of these two early Meier projects was the renovation of the former Bell Laboratories into the publicly funded artist housing complex Westbeth in the West Village. As part of GVSHP’s Oral History Collection on Westbeth, Meier was interviewed about this project in 2007 (click HERE for the full transcript of the interview).
In this oral history, Meier recounts how he was first approached by the Kaplan Fund for the project and the initial walk-through of the site with Jack Kaplan, then president of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and Roger Stevens, the first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Meier goes on to describe the special challenges of the project including changes necessary to the zoning to allow such a project and the tremendous effort in securing loans from the Federal Housing Authority. Also discussed are the special design challenges of this project with budget considerations superseding aesthetics.
By way of background, Western Electric occupied the site between West Street, Washington Street, Bank Street and Bethune Street starting in the 1890’s. In 1925, the site became home to 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. Bell Labs moved their operations to New Jersey in the 1960s, leaving behind a complex of buildings dating back to as early as 1860.
Shortly after Bell Labs’ exit, 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.
With Meier as the architect, this project 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. 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.
Meier explained in the interview that the New York City zoning at the time did not allow for living and working in the same space:
Well, it was an exciting time, and part of it was first of all, we had to change the zoning to create something that didn’t exist before, and that was an artist living and working district. So Westbeth became a sort of no longer a commercial space, but designated specifically for the purpose for which we were converting buildings. We also then had to go and change the Building Code to allow for living and working in the same space. And then we had to go further to allow for spaces which, although we had a bathroom and a kitchen, it had no partitions. We had dotted plans to show where partitions could go, but we had to change the building codes to allow us not to build those partitions unless the artist wanted them. Then they could build them themselves.
He later further explains the design process:
Well, the design ideas came from the existing building. There were things which were possible and things that weren’t possible. And, obviously we were trying to get the most space to each unit that was possible. But we had to work within an existing configuration, and therefore we devised it — duplex units in a way to eliminate corridors on every other floor and allow that space which would otherwise be corridors to be part of the living/working space.
According to Meier, Westbeth’s legacy is its influence of other adaptive use projects of warehouses downtown in the following decades:
I think it showed people that you no longer had to think in terms of the scale of the townhouse, you know, for renovation buildings, and so many wonderful warehouse buildings downtown. You know, we’re two blocks from Westbeth, it’s now been renovated for housing. I’ve not been in it but it looks wonderful. I mean so many really terrific buildings are now being renovated.
To hear the entire interview and other oral histories on Westbeth, click HERE.
Meier’s other early commission in our area was for the studio of William Rubin at 831 Broadway. William S. Rubin resided at No. 831 in the late 1960s and until 1974 when the artist Larry Poons and his wife Paula took over his loft. Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture of MoMA from 1973-1988, is credited with playing “a crucial role in defining the museum’s character, collections and exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s,” according to his obituary in The New York Times. During the time that Rubin lived at No. 831, the loft served as a showcase for his own considerable collection as well as a meeting place for artists, especially those from the Abstract Expressionist Movement.
During the Poons’ long residence at No. 831, they continued the tradition of the space serving as a gathering place for artists, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. According to Ms. Poons, their long-time friend and Bob Dylan’s former road manager, Bob Neuwirth, held tryouts in the Poons’ loft on one evening for the Dylan Rolling Thunder Review tour in 1975-76. In attendance that night was Patti Smith and T-Bone Burnett. You can see an image of the loft here.
This building and its twin neighbor at 827 Broadway were slated for demolition until GVSHP presented the Landmarks Preservation Commission with a peition to landmark the buildings based upon our research showing their historic significance. The hearing for the landmark designation of 827-831 Broadway will be held next Tuesday, October 17th. The time for the hearing will be released tomorrow; check our website for the time and how you support saving these structures.