A view of the southeast corner of the one-square-block Westbeth artists complex. The route where the High Line’s tracks used to cut through one of the buildings on the second floor is still visible.
BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Westbeth, the artists’ residence converted 40 years ago from the old Bell Laboratories complex, has recently completed a $9.8 million financing agreement for a long-needed maintenance project.
The agreement with Signature Bank became final last month after a yearlong process to determine how to finance urgent maintenance of the five-building complex, whose oldest structure was built 150 years ago.
The process involved input from consultants, local elected officials and the residential tenants association, said Ronni Denes, president of the Westbeth board of directors.
“This loan is critical to renewing our aging infrastructure to secure Westbeth’s future for another generation of artists,” Denes said. “We now have the resources to address many of our most pressing needs, beginning with repairing the facade and replacing roofs.”
Bids for the facade repair, required by Local Law 10, and roof replacement are to be solicited soon, said Steven Neil, executive director of Westbeth.
The complex, which was designated a city landmark last year and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has at least a dozen roofs at various levels, including the roofs on elevator structures, Neil said.
Two roofs at Westbeth had been replaced previously, one six years ago. The other, of red Spanish tile, was restored 15 years ago, Neil said. Moreover, The New School’s graduate theater department, which leases the two-story theater on the Bank St. side of the complex, has repaired the theater roof, Neil noted.
Westbeth is also nearing completion of a $3.5 million weatherization project, funded mostly by a grant from the federal Department of Energy, administered by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The weatherization project includes overhauling Westbeth’s heating and hot water systems, refurbishing the ventilation system and providing residents with free, energy-efficient refrigerators and lighting fixtures.
“These improvements are expected to create significant energy savings and contribute to the greening of Westbeth by switching from No. 6 to No. 2 heating oil and to natural gas in the near future,” Denes said.
But there remains further work, estimated at $20 million, to be done in Westbeth’s long-term restoration and repair program, Denes said. That work will eventually involve the replacement of nearly 3,000 windows in the complex, said Neil, noting that Westbeth has about six different sizes of windows.
The complex of interconnected industrial buildings — from West to Washington Sts. between Bethune and Bank Sts. — was where Bell Laboratories pioneered in the development of sound recording, television and transistors from 1924 to 1966.
The oldest building dates to 1860. Western Electric, Bell’s manufacturing affiliate, came onto the site in 1896 and 1903. More buildings rose in 1924 and 1926, and in the 1930s there were additions and alterations.
In 1933, the New York Central’s West Side Improvement (commonly known as the High Line) had a Washington St. spur that went through one of the buildings at the second floor. But this section was decommissioned after Westbeth took over the property.
The nonprofit Westbeth Center for the Arts was founded by Roger Stevens, a theater producer and founding chairman of the National Council for the Arts (later renamed the National Endowment for the Arts), along with the philanthropist Jacob M. Kaplan. Westbeth acquired the complex in 1967 when Bell vacated the site and went to New Jersey.
Designed by Richard Meier, the conversion of laboratory and industrial buildings into artists’ living/work space was completed in 1970. The square-block complex now has 383 units, an art gallery, a theater and a community room off a large plaza on the Bank St. side of the complex. The Brecht Forum, a venue for leftist politics and culture, is also a tenant.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Westbeth last year received Landmarks Preservation Commission designation as a city landmark.