1968 was a big year for New York City and the world – music, arts, staggering political and social change. And, in the midst of it all, a tan block-square collection of connected buildings known as the Bell Telephone Laboratories was transformed into the Westbeth Center for the Arts. A key component of that transformation was having the block rezoned in a new and unique way to allow residential, commercial, and non-profit use, which was approved on March 21, 1968.
The first time I walked into the Westbeth complex, I was amazed by how friendly everyone there was, how beautiful the facade was, and the uniqueness of the courtyard, studded with its half-moon balconies, sculpture, and round cement platforms instead of benches. I was struck by the art in the window of the Bank Street Theater. It is at once a labyrinth, a home, an arts community, and a pioneer in adaptive reuse of industrial space. It was rare and precious, but in 1968 it was nothing less than trailblazing.
Of course, its roots extend back farther than the zoning change. 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. The project was the conversion of the collection of buildings 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. The adaptive reuse process was undertaken from 1968-70 by a careful collection of community workers and architects who were interested in innovations and community building. Duplex apartments and long corridors were built across three floors such that all the doors to the apartments were on the same floor – meant to bring people closer to one another as neighbors by seeing more people. The architect’s report has some great images and layouts of the space, which you can read here.
The precipitating factor was the changing city and the growth of the Western Electric (Bell Telephone) Company, which left its offices and workshops on the Greenwich Village waterfront to move to a bigger space in New Jersey. It was in the Bell Telephone labs that some of the greatest innovations in sound technology took place, including breakthroughs in telephone communication, black and white TV, radar, the production of the very first “talkie” movie, and much more. You can read the full list here, excerpted from the nomination by GVSHP of Westbeth to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, which also includes an exhaustive catalogue of the complex’s architectural details, from the bracketed terra-cotta cornices facing Bank Street to the frieze of shells and modillioned cornice on the West Street industrial entrance.
Westbeth’s areas of significance on the State and National Register were identified as community planning and development, and being 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 notion of converting an obsolete and abandoned industrial complex into live-work space for artists was a radical notion. As soon as it was announced, the pioneering character of the Westbeth project was widely recognized by the government, architectural and mainstream press and writers. The Westbeth conversion also had a direct influence on other projects to convert industrial buildings into artist housing, notably the conversion of the Chickering Piano Factory in Boston into the Piano Craft Guild in 1974. Westbeth also met the State and National Register of Historic Place’s criteria for embodying the distinctive characteristics of a new property type that developed in the late twentieth century known popularly as a “loft conversion.”
Notable residents of Westbeth included journalist Bettye Lane, photographer Diane Arbus, the Martha Graham School, actor Vin Diesel, and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (who is the subject of one of GVSHP’s several Westbeth oral historians in our Oral History Archive), among many others. Additionally, the three-story building at 55 Bank Street was transformed to house the theater program of the Actors Studio at the New School.
I worked in the Westbeth building for several years at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s LGBTQS Synagogue, which gets a shoutout in Westbeth’s designation report. CBST functioned and worshipped at 57 Bethune Street from 1975 until 2016 when it moved to a landmarked Cass Gilbert Building at 130 West 30th Street. I spent a lot of time in Westbeth Park, which connects the building’s central courtyard to Bank Street via a few steps down. There are two rows of London plane trees (Platanus acerifolia), in tree pits surrounded by granite Belgian blocks. Three cylindrical planters are set to the north of this grouping. The park was created in 1968 by demolishing some of the older buildings in the complex. In the center of the park was a fountain that has been replaced by a polygonal planter with wood sides. The planter is surrounded by low cylindrical concrete seats – those seats are a beautiful place to eat lunch and people-watch. It’s where residents bring their dogs to play fetch. It’s where building employees take meetings and phone calls when the weather is nice. Theater students from The New School take classes out there sometimes, and practice stage fighting during their breaks.
I was especially moved by how the Westbeth Community came together after Hurricane Sandy. The basement, which was a labyrinth of residents’ storage spaces and machinery, was flooded for several days, and employees and artists braved the water to rescue their artworks. Together, residents, dancers, actors, synagogue and theater and building employees laid out the art, heirlooms, furniture, holy books, and more in the Westbeth Park, supporting each other through the challenges that the hurricane wrought. Hopefully, that won’t ever happen again, but in those days we all experienced the kind of community that the Westbeth creators envisioned, and of which I think they would be proud. Here’s to another 50 years and more of art, community, and creative uses of space!
If you’re interested in finding out more about the incredible history, architecture, and sights of Westbeth, visit our Westbeth page.