BY BOB KRASNER | Bob Gruen still recalls the moment vividly — and, no, it didn’t involve an event from his storied career as a rock-’n’-roll photographer.
“When I got the call that there was an apartment for me in Westbeth,” he said, “it was the most exciting moment of my life.”
That was in 1970, when he grabbed one of the last four spaces available in the new affordable artists’ housing complex.
The 980-square-foot loft seemed bigger then, without the subsequent accumulation of 49 years of photo negatives and prints, music and memorabilia.
Gruen and a friend built the sleeping loft and the darkroom and set up space in a corner to hang seamless background paper and do photo shoots. Gruen’s files include the iconic portrait of his friend John Lennon wearing a “New York City” T-shirt — with the sleeves torn off at Gruen’s suggestion to give him more edge — as well as shots of Elvis, the Sex Pistols, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and, well, the list goes on.
The landmarked complex, at 55 Bethune St., was a Bell Telephones Laboratory before it was renovated by a nonprofit group that hired up-and-coming architect Richard Meier to turn it into 384 units of live/work housing for artists. (Bell moved its operations to New Jersey.)
The initial idea was that artists would stay for five years, establish themselves professionally, and then move on. But things haven’t exactly turned out that way.
“Fame doesn’t equal fortune,” Gruen noted, adding that everyone still there from the early days is within Westbeth’s income guidelines.
Gruen mentioned a few of the place’s more notable tenants, including three no longer with us, pianist Gil Evans, photographer Diane Arbus and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who had a dance studio there.
Artist Elizabeth Gregory joined Gruen at Westbeth in 1993 and they were subsequently married. The wedding was officiated by his ex-wife, Nadya. They settled into a neighborhood that was quite different from what she had been used to living on the other side of town.
“Compared to the Lower East, this was the suburbs,” Gregory-Gruen said. “It’s much quieter over here.”
The fact that all their neighbors are artists made a difference, too, since most of the tenants share a similar lifestyle.
“Rush hour around here is about noon,” Gregory-Gruen noted. “And,” she added, “tenant meetings can be pretty wild!”
“Everyone is an artist here, so it makes it more comfortable,” Gruen said. “Nobody looks at you like you’re crazy.”
Some of his neighbors had an unexpected surprise on the Sunday afternoon John Lennon came to visit him. The former Beatle wandered along the long hallway searching for the photographer’s place.
“He didn’t remember my apartment number,” Gruen recalled. “He rang every doorbell on the way to my apartment!”
Things have changed in the neighborhood since 1970, for the better. The view from their sofa of the West Side Highway is completely different now. For a while, Gruen’s view — their apartment is on a lower floor — was of a collapsed elevated highway. Trucks were parked underneath it with the doors open, so that people knew there was nothing inside to steal. When it got dark, they became private rooms for the men cruising the pier.
“That got replaced by crack addicts,” Gruen recalled. “Before, you couldn’t see the river. But now it’s Hudson River Park, and it’s nice that they maintain it. The park totally changed the feeling of this apartment: It was a huge day when I could finally see New Jersey.”
Gregory-Gruen remembers what it was like when she first came to the city in 1985. The nearby Meatpacking District was still the scene of drugs and transsexual prostitutes.
“There were no rules,” she said of the area back then. “It was the last call for the hedonistic ’70s.”
“It was deserted over here,” chimed in Gruen. “Nobody knew about this neighborhood. But it’s become one of the most expensive — and now the cab drivers know where it is.”
The apartment is no longer set up for photo shoots as books, records, CDs and a TV now fill the space where Gruen once put seamless paper and lights. The loft is filled with memorabilia and file cabinets, which have become Gregory-Gruen’s domain. She left her job at Michael Kors in 2013 to become Gruen’s full-time archivist and cataloguer, with an eye toward eventually dispersing different caches of history to the proper institutions. At the moment, they have no idea how many images of his they are dealing with. In addition to everything stored at home, there are four more storage spaces, two in the city and two in New Jersey.
“I kept everything,” Gruen said.
On weekends, the two tend to head Upstate, where they have been renting a house for the last 20 years. That’s where Gregory-Gruen gets to work on her own artwork. Using a surgeon’s scalpel, she carefully cuts layers of matboard — without templates or patterns — to create beautifully intricate three-dimensional pieces.
“I don’t interfere with her work,” Gruen said. “I watch her, and I don’t know how she does it.”
Her work was recently on view at Howl! Happening gallery, at 6 E. First St.
Through all the decades that Gruen has lived in Westbeth, he had not met Richard Meier, the man responsible for creating the living spaces. But he finally got his chance at a recent event. The photographer introduced himself and his wife to the famous architect and proudly proclaimed that he is an original tenant of the storied building, having lived there since it opened.
“You were only supposed to be there for five years!” growled Meier.