When it opened in January 1970, Westbeth became the first and largest federally subsidized artists’ colony in the country. It was born during a moment of exceptionally liberal thinking in the late 1960s, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Fund tasked a young, up-and-coming architect named Richard Meier —who would go on to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize—with an extraordinary creative reuse project. Meier was asked to transform the massive, abandoned Bell Telephone Laboratories—where major modern technologies like the transistor radio and color TV were invented—into flexible, affordable live-work spaces for artists working in a range of creative disciplines.
Edith Stephen, 98, a dancer, choreographer, and documentary filmmaker, moved into the complex the year that it opened, when she was 50 years old. Her 2010 film Split/Scream, A Saga of Westbeth Artist Housing turned the lens on Westbeth. Photo by Frankie Alduino.
Was the initiative a success? One need only look to the wealth of canonical works created inside Westbeth’s walls, and its roster of now-famous tenants.
Westbeth makes it clear that it’s valuable to support artists, whether or not they achieve wealth and fame.
Westbeth celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020; in 2011, it was declared a New York City landmark. But in many ways, the inner workings of its hive-like interior remain a mystery. Frankie Alduino, a photographer and West Village local, first came across Westbeth in 2017 while walking to work at Annie Leibovitz ’s studio, where he was a producer. It was the beginning of a fruitful project: To date, he has captured over 60 residents in their apartment studios, an ongoing effort to document this unique community.
Jack Dowling entered Westbeth in 1970 as an abstract painter, but almost immediately turned to a career in writing. These days, he has plans to finally complete his last painting, which has remained unfinished since the 1960s. Photo by Frankie Alduino.
While most of Westbeth’s original tenants embody a certain spirit of 1960s bohemianism, all of the people I spoke to found reasons to dislike the area—but the degree to which these blights affected their experience varied dramatically.
.Jack Dowling was nearly 40, broke, and essentially homeless when the Department of Cultural Affairs told him about Westbeth in 1970.
Above all, Lee had a desire to be downtown among other artists; he was “just itching for a different lifestyle,” to be more “in it,” he said. His first marriage ended not long after he moved into Westbeth, but Lee has retained the same apartment, a spacious suite inhabited by strange creatures on every surface. A fantastical, life-sized lobster costume created for Sam Shepard’s Back Bog Beast Bait (1974) and a “pig-beast” from Cowboy Mouth (1971), which Shepard co-wrote with Patti Smith , flank his entryway. How did his kids—then 10, 9, and 4 years old—fare? Without daycare options in the building, residents made informal arrangements with one another. Lee’s son became friendly with the son of jazz musician Gil Evans. The children would hang out in Lee’s studio in the back of his apartment, where he gave them modeling clay to play with. On Saturday afternoons, he’d take all of them to the Elgin Theater (now the Joyce) to see old films. “It was just a great place, and a great place for kids,” he said..
Today, Lee shares the apartment with his second wife, Casey Compton (his children and grandchildren are frequent visitors). For the last 42 years, they’ve co-run the upstate Mettawee River Theater Company. But he became a local legend—and a Westbeth ICON awardee, an honor for senior artist residents who continue working beyond their eighties—when he created the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1974. Lee launched the “wandering neighborhood puppet show,” which begins at Westbeth, for his children and their friends. The parade became so popular, both among the residents who pitched in and the neighborhood at large, that in 1976, it became an official nonprofit organization. It still lives on, though Lee gave up directing the parade in 1985.
Still, in 1970, Dowling had “lost momentum,” and lost contacts, too. He felt the art world leaning toward Conceptualism and Minimalism . So Dowling put his abstract painting career on hold and took a job at a small publishing company, where he began to play around with writing..
When John Lennon visited his personal photographer’s Westbeth apartment, he said “Man, you’ve got some weird neighbors!”
Decades after he had settled into Westbeth, sculptor Jonathan Bauch, 78, found himself in such a tangled situation. In the 1960s, he was struggling to work on his art while balancing a full-time graphic design job. He spent his free moments demonstrating with the Art Workers Coalition and running a co-op gallery, the Museum Project of Living Artists, with Marcia Tucker. Despite his activities, Bauch wasn’t able to get his foot in the door of a commercial gallery and “wasn’t confident” about the work he was making at the time, so he quickly gave up on marketing it.
Bauch was down on his luck; the computer had phased him out of the graphic design field, which wasn’t as lucrative as it used to be, anyway. Instead, he said, “I compromised in order to have more time for art” by driving a taxi four days a week. A year after he moved, Bauch reapplied to Westbeth. He waited for 10 years, and in 2000, something amazing happened: He received a new apartment.
As a society, we have an urgent, moral obligation to address how artists can live safely and thrive creatively.
Armstrong was a relatively late addition to Westbeth—she moved in when she was almost 40 years old, in 1981—but the unfolding events of her life allowed her to circumvent waitlist purgatory. She was working towards a master of literature degree at Oxford University when her cousin William Anthony , a painter and illustrator who has lived at Westbeth since it opened, suggested she put her name on the list. “I said, ‘I’m never coming back to America,’” Armstrong recalled, so she ignored the request. But her health and a teenage son drew her back to Ohio before she finally moved to New York to study at NYU, camping out with cousin Bill until he found her a sublet at Westbeth.
As the city’s real estate prices soared in the 1980s and ’90s, artists clung to their Westbeth apartments ever more tightly.
Each resident has radically different thoughts about the nature of success, ideas that have shifted as they’ve aged. Bob Gruen, a pioneer of rock photography, is a self-proclaimed “Westbeth legend,” and agrees that he’s “a success story.” That’s a bit of an understatement. In the ’70s, Gruen cut his teeth capturing performances by Bob Dylan, the Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, the Who, David Bowie, and anyone else who wandered through downtown New York. He also served as John Lennon’s personal photographer while the former Beatle lived around the corner, on Bank Street, with Yoko Ono, and his shot of Lennon wearing a New York City T-shirt has become iconic (one of his portraits of Lennon was recently turned into a commemorative postage stamp). Okay, so Gruen’s a big, important artist—but despite his notoriety, he never made a lot of money from his work, and still relies on the rent-controlled apartment he’s lived in for almost 50 years.
The building management was also exceptionally accommodating. They understood that many artists couldn’t rely on a weekly paycheck, and were lenient about rent being late. “The only way to get kicked out of Westbeth is feet first,” Gruen said. The building’s residents also appreciated the unconventionality of an artists’ lifestyle. During the day, Gruen worked in the darkroom he built in his current apartment, which he moved into in 1975 and shares with his second wife,Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen , a fashion designer, artist, and manager of his archives. He went out to the East Village clubs all night. “No one cared,” he said appreciatively. Yet not everyone was accustomed to such a free-spirited place. Gruen remembered the first time Lennon came over for coffee. The rockstar had trouble finding the apartment, which is located down a convoluted maze of corridors, so he went around knocking on everyone’s doors. When he finally got to Gruen, Lennon couldn’t help but say, “Man, you’ve got some weird neighbors.”.
“No matter how old they are, everybody in this building is creative right up to the end. People are still working the day before they die.”
Header image: Known as the “Poet of Bleecker Street,” Ilsa Gilbert, 85, is the founder and director of the PEN Women’s Literary Workshop. She moved to Westbeth in 2002, after spending eight years on the waitlist. Photo by Frankie Alduino.