Westbeth: At Home in the Arts

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Black and white photograph of a building about 12 stories high.

East facade of the Westbeth.

1968When Bell Laboratories put its building at West and Bethune Streets in New York's Greenwich Village up for sale in 1966, the building already had a storied past. It had witnessed the development of radar and the transistor and had been the proving ground for early experiments in film and television. Local community activists were interested in the building as low-cost housing for a new generation of experimenters and innovators—New York City artists. The group approached the Arts Endowment and the J.M. Kaplan Foundation for funding to support the building's purchase. Each organization contributed $750,000, and the building was purchased in July 1967 (FY 1968) for a total price of $2.5 million. For nearly 40 years, since Westbeth opened for mixed residential and commercial use in 1969, artists such as choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, the late photographer Diane Arbus, and poet Muriel Ruekeyser have lived and worked at Westbeth, helping to make it one of the largest artist colonies in the world.

Today Westbeth comprises 383 units for living and working. Westbeth's architect, Richard Meier, received a 1971 honor award from the American Institute of Architects for his redesign of the former industrial space. The complex includes performing and visual arts studios; a gallery; theaters; film, photography, and recording studios; a communal print shop; sculpture studio; and a community multipurpose space.

Admission to Westbeth is highly competitive. Prospective residents must submit an application with personal and professional references and strong evidence of a professional career in the arts. Even after acceptance, there is waiting list of approximately 7-10 years for an apartment.

Westbeth has weathered several storms during its three-plus decades including a divisive rent strike in the 1970s and a controversial attempt to turn the building into a co-op in the 1980s. Even this building's look has changed: Many of Meier's colorful internal spaces have been painted a uniform white, an outdoor fountain has become a garden, and the neoclassical fa├žade has acquired Victorian gingerbread trimmings. Still Westbeth remains an active, vibrant community, no less a place for innovation and exploration than the day in 1937 that Bell Labs mathematician George Stibitz arrived at work carrying a homemade computer made of breadboard, bulbs, batteries, old tobacco tins, and discarded telephone relays.