Our History

Westbeth comprises an entire New York City block facing the Hudson River. Its various buildings range from three to 13 stories, but its most distinctive architectural feature is the hole in the east side of its  building through which the bed of the old High Line railroad runs. Westbeth contains 384 residential live-work units and is also the home of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, The New School for Drama graduate program, the LAByrinth Theater, a synagogue, an art gallery, and numerous large and small spaces rented to painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists.

“Westbeth” began in 1967 when Westbeth Inc., a not-for-profit corporation, purchased the former site of Bell Laboratories on the waterfront in New York’s Greenwich Village. (Bell Laboratories continues as part of Lucent Technologies, one of the successors to AT&T. You can find out much about Bell Labs' history at the Lucent website.)

The Westbeth plan, a novelty at the time, was to convert the empty labs and offices into work-live spaces to be rented at affordable rates to artists from all disciplines. The project was a joint endeavor of what was then known as the National Council on the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Fund. A young architect named Richard Meier was soon engaged to design and oversee the conversion process from industrial site to residential and art-related commercial use. (Meier was later to become the youngest winner of the Pritzker Prize in architecture.) The Westbeth project presented the architect and developers with enormous challenges in financing, design and construction, and also raised unique issues concerning zoning and the building code. These challenges were all eventually overcome utilizing various degrees of ingenuity and perseverance.

Westbeth opened to its first residential tenants in 1971 in a neighborhood that, to its north and east, was still an active wholesale market for the meat and restaurant business and which was smelly in the summer, wet and slippery in the winter, and noisy year round, especially in the very early morning when the butchers and purveyors conducted the bulk of their business. To its west, the elevated West Side Highway created noise and exhaust fumes and cut off light and air below itself and on Westbeth’s lower floors, and unused and decrepit piers cut off access to the Hudson River.

Over the course of its history, the Westbeth site had seen many buildings constructed to accommodate the needs of Bell Laboratories. Some of those buildings were torn down in the conversion to artists' housing, while one of them, 463 West Street, was named to the National Register of Historic Places. in 1969. You can see the nomination report here.

In September 2009, the New York State Historic Preservation Office voted to nominate the entire Westbeth site to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. You can see the nomination report, by Professor Andrew Dolkart of Columbia University, here. Professor Dolkart's nomination is a comprehensive, detailed study of Westbeth's history and development. The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservatgion also conducted an extensive oral history project in connection with the designation. Their interviews with many of the surviving founders can be seen and heard at GVSHP's website. The nomination has since been approved by the National Parks Service.

On Oct. 25, 2011, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to make Westbeth an individual New York City landmark, following remarks by Westbeth Executive Director Steven Neil welcoming the designation and discussion by the commission members unanimously endorsing the idea. The commission's designation report can be seen here.

Today, Westbeth stands amid a study in gentrification. The Superior Ink factory, across Bethune Street from the main residential entrance, has been demolished and is now newly built luxury housing. The Meat Market has been transformed into a high-end retail fashion destination, the West Side Highway is barely a memory, the piers have been removed, and the lovely new Hudson River Park has transformed peoples’ idea of what “waterfront” means.

Under these circumstances, Westbeth’s mission of providing affordable housing to artists has become even more critical than when it opened in the early 1970s. Throughout its history, Westbeth’s unique position – geographically and culturally -- has brought it challenges stemming from its built environment, its finances, the changing nature of its neighborhood, and the changes that have transformed New York City itself. The need today for affordable housing for the arts is even more acute than it was in 1971 and the challenges Westbeth faces, although vastly different from those of 1971, 1981 or 1991, are nonetheless just as serious.