On August 7th, 1967, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the newly-constituted National Endowment for the Arts announced plans for a project that would help transform Greenwich Village, New York, housing for artists, industrial buildings, and older industrial cities across the world.
The project was the conversion of the disused former Bell Telephone Labs on the block bounded by West, Bethune, Washington, and Bank Streets along the Greenwich Village waterfront into subsidized housing and studios for artists and space for arts, cultural, educational, and community institutions. Opened in 1970, what came to be known as Westbeth took one of the most historically significant building complexes in New York, where some of the greatest innovations in sound technology of the last hundred years had taken place, and breathed new life and a groundbreaking new layer of cultural and historic significance into it. Westbeth’s transformation was the first significant commission by the then-largely unknown architect Richard Meier.
Documenting the significance of Westbeth and helping to ensure its preservation has been a high priority for GVSHP. With a grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, in 2009 GVSHP was able to get Westbeth listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Given that the 1967-70 conversion was the basis for the listing, and listings for events which took place less than 50 years ago require proving “extraordinary significance,” this was no small task. And after years of GVSHP advocating for landmarking the complex, in 2011 the Landmarks Preservation Commission finally voted to designate the entire complex an individual New York City landmark, thus protecting it from demolition or inappropriate alterations.
In 2010, GVSHP and the Westbeth Artists Residents Council also ran a first-ever Westbeth loft tour, allowing the public access not only to the incredible spaces originally constructed between the 1860’s and 1930’s, and to see the groundbreaking early designs of Richard Meier which were part of the conversion, but to see some of the great collections of art made and stored by some of the hundreds of working artists who live in the complex (see photos here).
GVSHP has also conducted an oral history project with those involved with the founding of Westbeth, including Dixon Bain, Ana Steele Clark, Peter Cott, Merce Cunningham, Joan Davidson, Richard Meier, and Tod Williams.
From the nomination commissioned by GVSHP of Westbeth to the State and National Registers of Historic Places:
Westbeth is nationally significant…in the area of community planning and development as the first and to this day, largest publicly and privately financed conversion of an industrial complex into housing for artists in the United States. The conversion of the former Bell Laboratories complex into subsidized housing for a diverse group of artists, with 384 studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments, gallery, theater, and commercial spaces, and large landscaped park and courtyard, occurred in 1967-70, at a time when the adaptive reuse of buildings was in its infancy and the notion of converting an obsolete and abandoned industrial complex into live-work space for artists was a radical notion. In addition, the project codified the idea of artists living and working in studios created from obsolete industrial space, a development that had recently begun, in an illegal manner, in post-industrial sections of New York, such as SoHo. The success of the Westbeth project in creating live-work space for artists led to new laws that permitted artists to live in other areas that were zoned for industrial use. The project also inspired other projects that converted factories into housing for artists in other American cities. The Westbeth project was an important example of the private and public sectors joining together in partnership to create new housing, since planning and funding was undertaken jointly by the recently formed federal National Endowment for the Arts and the private J. M. Kaplan Fund, with the assistance of The Federal Housing Authority, the City of New York, and the Bankers Trust Company….Upon its completion, the conversion won several awards. The Westbeth conversion also had a direct influence on other projects to convert industrial buildings into artist housing…Commentary in the forty years since the project was begun has continued to see it as a major early example of adaptive reuse and as a significant example of low- and middle-income government-supported housing. In addition, the conversion of the former Bell Labs laboratory and factory complex to the Westbeth residential complex, marks the first inroads of housing into the Greenwich Village waterfront area, heralding the major change that would transform the far West Village into a residential neighborhood by the end of the century. The conversion project was the first significant design of Richard Meier, who has gone on to become one of the world’s most prestigious architects, with commissions throughout the United States and Europe; Meier won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s most prestigious award, in 1984. Westbeth also embod[ies] the distinctive characteristics of a new property type that developed in the late twentieth century known popularly as a “loft conversion” for live-work space made possible by the convergence of several factors including the abandonment of large-scale industrial buildings in cities, rezoning, public-private funding, and ideology.
The nomination also notes that
The Western Electric/Bell Labs complex was devoted both to experimentation in pure science and to evolving ways in which to use science to further the technological and corporate advancement of the Bell System…Western Electric and Bell Laboratories technological breakthroughs have included: the development of the first high-vacuum tube (1912); the invention of the condenser microphone which became the “mike” for early radio (1913); the technology for cross-continental telephone service (1915); the principle for what became radar (1919); high fidelity recording (1925); sound motion pictures (1926); television transmission (1927); color TV transmission (1929); the digital computer (1938); the transistor (1947); a microwave radio relay system (1948); direct distance dialing (1951); the silicon solar cell (1954); transoceanic telephone cable (1956); lasers (1958); large superconducting magnets (1961); satellite communications (1962); and the picturephone (1964).
Read more about the Bell Telephone history of the complex here.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the incredible history, architecture, and sights of Westbeth, visit our Westbeth page.