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Behind the Battle to Save a Brutalist Building

Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center
Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MONTGOMERY, NY — Noted Modernist architect Paul Rudolph’s beautiful, historically significant, so-called “BrutalistOrange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, will be rehabilitated and turned into the seat of government for Orange County once again. The County has sent off a presser soliciting bids for construction. It’s a done deal.

This is a good thing for a lot of reasons, mostly to do with local politics and the near death of places that aren’t New York City. But if you read Michael Kimmelman’s recent plea in the New York Times to preserve the building, or Joseph Giovannini’s stirring piece in the LA Review of Books that compares the renovation of the structure to the Taliban’s wholesale destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, you might come away thinking that legislators and voters in Orange County are rubes. The touches of cultural imperialism here — views of life exported from New York and LA without any lived knowledge of the community in question — only muddle the picture, and so you’d get the picture largely wrong.

Built in 1967, the Orange County Government Center is absolutely gorgeous. Viewed from the south, it’s a perfectly Tetris-fitted puzzle, gloriously maze-like, robust rectangles running together outside and in. It’s easy to see how the building, though apparently a bad “fit” now, could have once been a herald for progress in the Victorian village of Goshen. Today the building is shuttered, the village is an economically starved ghost town, and New York State courts formerly housed on the premises are demanding that the building be brought back to life per its original purpose. Proponents of the County’s plan for renovation hope that revitalizing the building will also revitalize the beleaguered commerce and community of Goshen.

View of the building from the green
View of the building from the green

Some charge that the County is doing its best to destroy the building, but County officials who spoke to me at length in person and over the phone — and who all requested anonymity due to the extremely tense atmosphere in Goshen — pointed out that the Government Center was falling apart from the very beginning. One official with deep knowledge of the building’s life in the community remembered that it “had wet feet, it was built in an area that used to be a pond,” and so, within 10 years of its construction, new spaces were constructed that radically undercut the open plan Rudolph had originally designed. Another official ruefully claimed, “It was a beautiful building, but in the wrong place.” That the public encountered the structure through a side entrance off a crass parking lot and not off the main road, as Rudolph had envisioned, also didn’t endear it to locals. The Government Center was born in original sin, and paid its wages.

It is true that for much of the last decade the building has been under threat of demolition. Former Republican County Executive Edward Diana floated plans to have two-thirds of it demolished, while the rest would have been gutted. According to another county official who spoke to me on background, after Hurricane Irene in 2011, Diana shuttered the Government Center even though employees who worked in the building thought a little fixing up would have brought it back to order. According to this official, it was Diana’s plan all along to knock down the building by first abandoning it and then letting it fall apart.

It is also true that there are many preservationists currently within the County government who know what’s feasible and what deals can and cannot be struck. They’re begrudgingly backing the plan to renovate the building because that may be the only option.

Diana’s Republican successor, Steve Neuhaus, campaigned and won on the promise of revitalizing the Government Center, and through it the village of Goshen, home to an aging population, a large share of which happens to be County government employees. Neuhaus and his Republican legislature secured a plan that would renovate one third of the building made up of infrastructure and hallways, leave two-thirds — the part open and visible to the world — as is, all while bringing the whole structure up to code and making it ADA compliant. Yes, the renovated building won’t match Rudolph’s original design. But the Government Center hasn’t matched Rudolph’s design for almost its whole life. If a chunk of the initial plan was bastardized 20, 30 years ago, does what now stands really represent Rudolph’s original vision?

Tom C. pointing out a fixable leak (click to enlarge)
Tom C. pointing out a fixable leak (click to enlarge)

While visiting the building today, I met a man named Tom who defined precisely what the tragedy is here. Tom was a member of the union that built the Government Center and later worked at the building as a contractor. He witnessed the changing of the interior soon after the building went up, in a “way that didn’t work with the original plan,” and saw how it was later left to rot. Tom admitted that the County had forced some changes on the structure, so the damage has now become irreparable in places. But he was adamant that this was a beautiful piece of construction, and that all it ever really needed was some upkeep. “If those bastards had only taken care of it, it’d have lived strong well past the day we’d all be dead.”

Right before the County’s rehabilitation plan was set to be adopted, architect and developer Gene Kaufman proposed a two-pronged plan to buy the Rudolph building and turn it into an arts center with live/work spaces, if and only if he could also build a new government building on the adjacent parking lot. Though preservationists as well as local artists and art organizations supported Kaufman’s offer, officials I spoke to claimed that Kaufman insisted on getting both deals or he’d walk away. In written correspondence, a County official elaborated on some of the issues with Kaufman’s proposal, as well as other obstacles:

The developers who have come forward with plans to repurpose the building have tied the deal to other contracts. They’ll restore the building if the County hires them to build a new structure on adjacent land. It’s unethical for a deal to be made that way, and the County already has their own architect on board who has gone through appropriate vetting practices. If an independent offer were made, it would have been considered more seriously, but again, it would take too long at this stage.

Also, the State Court Administration is frustrated by the delays that have prevented them from having proper courtroom space. It is mandated by the State that the County MUST accommodate the Court system. They are pressuring the County to act quickly and begin construction on the currently approved plan immediately. They are indifferent to the historic value of the structure and indifferent to the debate over how it should be modified; they just want work to begin as soon as possible.

Additionally, in order for the building to be re-zoned as commercial or residential space, it would have to go through an approval process at the Village of Goshen. The Village officials are adamant that they want to see the Rudolph building remain as the government center. The village economy is practically reliant on the infusion of money that comes from so many employees working in their village for the County. They are not willing to rezone and risk losing that economic base. Their businesses have been hurting since the building closed and scattered County offices.

Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center
Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center

The County has secured a workable deal, even if the details aren’t ideal. Rebuilding according to Rudolph’s original plan is prohibitively expensive, and because any renovation will be paid for by local county tax dollars, this is a local issue — though one that could have been solved long ago had a consortium of investors bought the building outright and preserved it then, as has been done with any number of historic structures. Now there’s an urgency to the matter that can’t be put off: bureaucracies are pushing politics in the service of the local economy. This is politics done right, though it also cuts against culture. Localism has won out, at a cost. This is unfortunate, but it’s not “cultural terrorism.”

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