Westbeth complex considered


Westbeth Artist Housing complex at 463 West Street in Manhattan. Photo: LPC.

Building complex, dating from 19th century, formerly housed AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and was the first federally-subsidized artists’ colony. On January 12, 2010, Landmarks heard testimony on the possible designation of a building complex in the Far West Village, now known as Westbeth. Located on an entire block bounded by West, Bethune, Washington, and Bank Streets, Westbeth comprises five buildings built between 1861 and 1926. From 1899 to 1966, AT&T’s Bell Laboratories used the complex as a research facility; some of the earliest transistors, televisions, and radar equipment were built on its site. In the 1930s, the New York Central Railroad laid elevated rail tracks, now known as the High Line, through the third floor of the building at 51 Bethune Street.

Bell Labs relocated to New Jersey in 1966, and two years later, the National Endowment for the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Fund purchased the complex in order to convert it into the country’s first federally-subsidized artists’ colony. Architect Richard Meier renovated the complex, designing 383 studio units and an entrance courtyard. Its mission persists to the current day, housing over 300 artists in a variety of disciplines. Past residents have included dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, poet Muriel Rukeyser, and photographer Diane Arbus.

The proposed designation garnered support from Westbeth residents, elected officials, community groups, and preservationists. Steven Neil, Westbeth’s executive director, called the complex “a physical marvel,” and said Meier’s redesign enhanced the complex’s architectural interest and its history. Carol Feinman, vice president of the Westbeth board of directors, expressed her concern that Westbeth be maintained in a way that would not raise rents and compromise its mission of providing affordable housing for artists. Christabel Gough, representing the Society for the Architecture of the City, said it was essential that more than Westbeth’s outer shell be protected, noting the complex’s inner courts and balconies.

The Commissioners did not offer comments, and Chair Robert B. Tierney did not set a date for a vote.

LPC: Westbeth, 463 West Street, Manhattan (LP-2391) (Jan 12, 2010).

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