Westbeth is honored with a G.V.S.H.P. plaque

From left, Nancy Gabor, vice president Westbeth Artist Residents Council (WARC); Pat Jones, Westbeth board chairperson; Andrew Berman, G.V.S.H.P. executive director; Joan Davidson, president emeritus of J.M. Kaplan Fund; and Domhnaill Hernon, Nokia Bell Labs head of experiments in art and technology. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY TEQUILA MINSKY | The latest plaque to grace the portal of the Westbeth Artists Housing complex in Greenwich Village completes a trifecta of acknowledgements that recognize the historical significance of 55 Bethune St.

Early Tuesday afternoon, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation   unveiled a plaque honoring the building’s history as a place of sound-technology innovation and as a groundbreaking home to artists.

Dedicated to provide affordable living and working space for artists and arts organizations in New York City, Westbeth comprises the full city block, bounded by West, Bethune, Washington and Bank Sts., and takes its name from two of these streets. Nearly 400 artists and their families live in Westbeth. Artists use their homes to make art, and musicians and dancers practice in their studios.

The building complex, built from roughly 1860 to 1934, originally was the home of Bell Telephone Labs from 1898 to 1966. Many technological innovations were developed or advanced there, including radar, television and video telephones.

The original High Line freight rail line ran through the complex’s eastern side, and the rail bed is still carved through and visible in this former industrial landmark building.

In 1970, it reopened as Westbeth, an early example of large-scale adaptive reuse of an industrial building.

This latest Westbeth Artists Housing plaque sits to the right of a Historical Physics Sites plaque, indicating the building is on the Register of Historic Sites of the American Physical Society.

A red medallion installed this September by the Historical Landmarks Preservation is dedicated to dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose dance studio was in Westbeth.

At this week’s plaque dedication, Nancy Gabor, vice president of the Westbeth Artist Residents Council, or WARC, listed a panoply of programs and activities that weave residents together, as well as contribute to their being part of other artistic communities and Village activities.

Senior wellness classes — yoga, singing, sound healing and improvisational acting — are free and open to the public.

The new G.V.S.H.P. plaque honoring Westbeth after its unveiling at the dedication.

Pen Literary Quests hosts readings in Westbeth apartments; Open House New York/Open Studio offers historical building tours and a self-guided tour of artists’ studios; Westfest Dance Fest combines site-specific dance with a curated performance in the Martha Graham Dance Studio.

The new Westbeth Icons Project honors senior artist residents who continue working beyond their 80s. Because of its aging community, Westbeth legally qualifies as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community a.k.a. a NORC.

The take from an annual flea market run by the complex’s Beautification Committee goes toward building improvements and funded the iron-and-glass canopy over the Bethune St. entrance.

“It is a privilege to be a part of Westbeth,” said Gabor, “a community of artists which stands together in times of emergency, like Hurricane Sandy, which hit us hard. We mourn together as older residents pass on, and also celebrate in times of joy.

“Affordable rents have created homes where we can live, work, raise families and share our triumphs and struggles together.”

Residents are looking forward to Westbeth’s  50th anniversary in this coming year.

Other speakers at the dedication included Andrew Berman, executive director of G.V.S.H.P.; Patricia C. Jones, Westbeth board chairperson; Joan Davidson, president emeritus of the J.M. Kaplan Fund; and Domhnaill Hernon, head of experiments in art and technology at Nokia Bell Labs.

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