By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
The Bell Laboratories Buildings, from 1898–1966, headquarters of Bell Telephone Laboratories, was also one of the world’s most important industrial research centers and home to many early technological inventions including the condenser microphone, automatic telephone panel and crossbar switches, the first experimental “talking pictures” (1923), black and white and color TV, video telephones, radar, the vacuum tube, the transistor, medical equipment, the development of the phonograph record, and the first commercial broadcasts, including the first broadcast of a baseball game and the New York Philharmonic with Arturo Toscanini conducting. It is a complex of 13 buildings in Manhattan’s West Village, enlarged over many years. It housed part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.
In 1929 the city, the state, and New York Central agreed on the West Side Improvement Project, conceived by Robert Moses for a 13-mile (21 km) project eliminating 105 street-level railroad crossings, and including construction of the West Side Elevated Highway. The elevated railroad was dedicated on June 29, 1934, running from St John’s Terminal at Clarkson Street to Riverside Park, and was designed to go through the center of blocks rather than over streets, thus necessitating some structural gymnastics.
Bell Labs accommodated the NY Central Railroad’s freight viaduct, going through their existing buildings, while other buildings got railroad tracks running right into them. This view of the Washington and Bethune Streets intersection, with Bank Street just beyond the left end of this ca. 1939 photo, shows the new tracks inserted into the Bell Labs building.
Westbeth Artists Housing is a nonprofit housing project for artists and arts organizations, and is among the first examples of adaptive reuse of industrial buildings for artistic and residential use in the United States.
This photo of the Washington and Bethune Streets shows the former Bell Labs structure, now named after two of its adjoining streets, West and Bethune (Westbeth). Designed by architect Richard Meier, it was converted in 1968–1970 to low- to-moderate income rental housing and commercial real estate, the largest in the world of its type. Merce Cunningham, the noted choreographer and dancer, had his studio and offices there from 1971-2012.
Developed with the assistance of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, Westbeth was added to the National Register of Historic Places on December 8, 2009; on October 25, 2011, Westbeth was designated a landmark by the city LPC.
Around 1960 the southernmost section of the Highline was demolished, and the rest of the viaduct was shut down in 1980, by then-owner Conrail. A small section from Bank to Gansevoort Streets was taken apart in 1991, despite objections by preservationists, leaving the remains of the tracks in Westbeth, still seen in this photo.
By 1999, CSX Transportation, then-owner, wanted to unburden themselves of this relic. With mounting pressure and community support, the federal Surface Transportation Board issued a certificate of interim trail use on June 13, 2005 allowing the city to remove most of the line from the national rail system, and the New York City government committed $50 million to establish the proposed Highline park, the first portion opening April 10, 2006 and the last portion opening in 2019.