In 1894 the Western Electric Company of Chicago decided to erect a factory at the intersection of West Street and Bethune Street in New York's Greenwich Village. In 1907 the American Telephone and Telegraph Company decided to bring together all of its scattered development facilities (including the Boston laboratory that had evolved from Alexander Graham Bell's original attic workshop) and center them at the site.
AT&T and Western Electric sought out engineers and scientists who were eminent in their field and by the mid-1920's inventions such as talking motion pictures, radar, the vacuum tube, the microphone, the phonograph, black and white television, color television, stereo sound, and the computer were being invented in what would soon become known as Bell Labs. By 1966 however, Bell Telephone Laboratories had set up a major new research center in Summit, New Jersey. And the West Street site was put up for sale.
When Roger Stevens, Chairman of the National Council on the Arts, learned of its availability, he and J. M. Kaplan acted swiftly to arrange for its purchase. The J. M. Kaplan Fund had previously been renovating old lofts and brownstones in the area to provide needed living and studio space for artists who could not afford spiraling middle-income rents. The Bell Labs site was the answer to a dream.
Westbeth could easily have become a warehouse or a factory, or even a tenement. That it became instead a haven for artists is a fitting tribute to the contributions to civilization that were made here.