A Lifetime of Work Destroyed at Westbeth

Al Cooke, 81, had a few hours on Friday to save what remained of his life’s work. A metal sculptor, he slowly carried heavy sheets of aluminum up to his studio’s loft. Walking back down the stairs, however, the pain shooting through his knees made him hesitate with every step.

“I’m getting pretty old,” said Mr. Cooke, an original tenant of the Westbeth Artists Housing in Manhattan, who moved into the building the day after Christmas, 1969. “I lost a lot of tools. I lost years of work. And now I have to start over.”

The surge of seawater that flooded much of Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy inundated the basement of Westbeth, which was the first and largest federally subsidized artist’s colony in the country when it opened 42 years ago at the westernmost edge of the West Village. With five separate buildings sprawling across an entire city block overlooking the Hudson River, the community supported a 78,000-square-foot underground labyrinth that artists used as communal (and free) studio space.

Though largely devoid of natural light, the basement overflows with vast rooms and high ceilings. (The walls of Mr. Cooke’s studio climb over 30 feet high, dwarfing the full-sized canoe hanging from a wall.) Meanwhile, the smaller rooms and cramped hallways overflowed with paintings, sculptures, photographs and other art, some of it left behind by artists who died years ago.

After the flood, most of that art became waterlogged trash.

“I’m in shock. It’s the worst nightmare of my life,” said Karen Santry, a painter and fashion illustrator whose work has appeared at the New Museum and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. She estimated she lost $300,000 worth of artwork and equipment.

“I had nine feet of water, and everything was underwater for three days,” said David Seccombe, 83, who built most of his abstract sculptures out of wood. “There wasn’t much to save. Everything was contaminated.”

The building’s managers did not allow residents into the basement for nine days after the storm, said George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council, although some, including Mr. Cooke, ventured downstairs a week earlier to save what little they could. The decision to bar artists from the basement was necessary, some say, because conditions were so hazardous.

“You had to balance saving a person’s life work versus saving peoples’ lives,” Mr. Cominskie said. “You had entire walls knocked out by the force of the water. It was very dangerous down there.”

Other residents argue that building managers allowed concerns over legal liability to trump the effort to save irreplaceable art.

“If we had gotten it out within 48 hours, we could have saved it,” said Lawrence Salemme, 61, who has lived in Westbeth off and on since 1969, “But management said they would have us arrested. They were obstructive and ignorant.”

The building’s managers stood by their decision.

“We had burst walls, we had water up to the ceiling. It looked like a disaster area,” said Steven Neil, executive director of Westbeth Corp. “Letting people run around in the basement while our contractors were working just was not going to work.”

Though originally conceived as an arts incubator, Westbeth evolved into a permanent home for many artists, who cherished the low rents and huge spaces as a kind of nirvana in New York’s competitive real estate market. Today so many septuagenarian and octogenarian artists roam its lobbies and courtyards that at times the campus resembles a senior citizen center.

Now many longtime residents face a late-life career shift. Mr. Seccombe specialized in geometric sculptures, some of which resembled coffins suspended by wooden planks 30 feet in the air. Those large works were carted away in a trash hauling bin. The basement will not be open for use again until May, Mr. Neil said, so now Mr. Seccombe will focus on photography.

“There’s nowhere I can work for the near future, so I don’t know what else to do,” said Mr. Seccombe. “I have to work smaller.”

Working in two separate basement studios, each with 800 square feet, Ms. Santry made paintings 16 feet tall. Now she will focus on works she can carry with both hands.

“I’m going to have to completely reinvent myself,” she said.

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