History Lesson, Pt. 1: The Westbeth Artists Community
While the High Line itself is rich with its own unique and storied history, it is also part of the larger historical context of the city it has called home for over a century. In this recurring series, we hope to rediscover the High Line by taking a look at some of the important historical locations in the surrounding area.
Built between 1880 and 1900, The Westbeth Artists Community is located at 463 West Street. From 1898 to 1966 it functioned as a laboratory for the Bell Telephone company, when it served as America's largest industrial research lab. Many major technological inventions and innovations in the field of telecommunications trace its origins to the lab, including the first experimental talking movie, radar, the first phonograph record, and black and white and color television, an invention of particular significance for fans of such fine modern television programming as The Jerry Springer Show and Baywatch. The site was even home to part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
Part of the building was eventually altered to allow freight trains to pass through along the High Line. However, due to the sensitive nature of the research occurring in the laboratory at the time, the building had to be reinforced to prevent train vibrations from affecting the research. As is visible in the images below, the building has since been severed from the High Line, but the building's elevated tunnel along Washington Street is still visible from the street below.
Bell Labs closed in 1966, but after two years of renovations by famed American architect Richard Meier, it reopened in 1970 as the Westbeth Artists Community, which serves as low to middle income rental housing for artists, their families and their studios. Taking its cue from the former tenant's stature as the largest industrial research laboratory in America, the Westbeth Artists Community is now the largest community of its kind in the world. On May 15th, 1975, the building was designated a national historic landmark.
Special thanks to Matt Postal, Tom Starkweather and the Trust for Architectural Easements. Images courtesy of Tom Starkweather and The New York Times. You can view a pdf of the High Line Historical Walk Tour Guide here.