Westbeth Artist Housing in the West Village is home to 384 multi-disciplined artists – but this adaptively reused building was not always a residential complex. The idea to turn this five-building industrial facility, formerly a Bell Labs research facility, into affordable housing and studios for New York City’s artists and their families was conceived in the 1960s and the community is thriving to this day. Westbeth, named for its cross streets of West and Bethune, opened in 1970 as the first and largest federally subsidized artist’s complex in the United States. The groundbreaking opening of Westbeth was not the first or last, momentous event to take place at this site.
On a recent Untapped Cities Insiders tour led by Westbeth Artist Residents Council President Roger Braimon, we discovered many fascinating secrets of the unique housing complex. From its past as an industrial lab to its amazing art history, here are the top 10 secrets of Westbeth Artist Housing:
10. Sound Motion Pictures, the Digital Computer, and More Inventions Were Created There When Westbeth was Bell Labs
Photographs Courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs
Before Westbeth was an innovative housing complex, it was a cutting technology research facility for Bell Telephone Laboratories, once the largest industrial research center in the United States. It was at this massive laboratory that many technological breakthroughs were made such as the first television broadcast. The first broadcast was transmitted between 463 West Street and Washington, D.C. in 1927. Other breakthroughs that took place at Bell Labs include the first demonstration of a binary computer, the invention of the condenser microphone, and the development of technologies like the silicon solar cell, transoceanic telephone cables and lasers. The advanced experiments in sound done at Bell Labs eventually led to the first talking picture and the creation of high fidelity long-playing (LP) records and the record-playing stylus.
In 1896, The Western Electric Co. built an office and factory building for telephone-related equipment at 455-465 West Street, 149 Bank Street, and 734-742 Washington Street. In 1925, Western merged with Bell Telephone Laboratories and converted the factory into research and development facilities. The complex was expanded with the construction of 744-754 Washington Street, 151 Bank Street and a pioneering experimental sound motion picture studio. The laboratory also took over 445-453 West Street, a large Italianate-style building that was built circa 1860 and served as the Hook’s Steam-Powered Factory Building. It is one of the few 19th-century industrial buildings that still exist along the Hudson River waterfront.