To some, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, has a façade only a mother (or a modernist architect) could love.
A midcentury structure chockablock with boxy window openings that jut out like so many square periscopes from thick concrete walls, the 1967 building has leaked and been neglected for years. Then Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012 hit southern New York State and brought in flooding and more damage, causing the county government to move out.
The local legislators who voted two weeks ago to renovate the building by taking down its concrete walls and rebuilding with a structure far different from the original shy away from calling it ugly. Instead, says Orange County executive Steven Neuhaus, the new solution is a “compromise,” one that he hastens to add was made before he took office a year and a half ago.
But to others, including the New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, the original building is an icon and historic landmark, one of a dwindling number of remaining projects designed by the architect Paul Rudolph. Rudolph was one of the 20th century’s most memorable modernist designers, creating stark behemoths like the Yale Art and Architecture Building and breezier dwellings in Sarasota, Florida.
The Orange County building is one of Rudolph’s “most iconic works,” says Sean Khorsandi, an architect on the board of the Paul Rudolph Foundation.
The controversy that has erupted in the last year over the building’s future is partly a culture clash, says Frank Sanchis, head of U.S. programs for the World Monuments Fund. While Rudolph was “completely embraced by the design community—you’d be hard-pressed to find a critic who doesn’t think Paul Rudolph is a genius—the public never thought so,” he says. Another icon of the same era, Boston’s City Hall, for instance, has been called the ugliest building in America.
Orange County is ready to have a government center back, Neuhaus says. “It’s been three and a half years of nothing happening. And when you look at the alternatives,” he adds, “many of Rudolph’s buildings have been completely demolished. All you have in those places is a plaque. But what our [plan] does is keep the Rudolph building, bring it to the core skeletal structure and bring it back up.”
The architectural community has almost uniformly condemned that plan. “It’s equal to destroying the building,” says Ernst Wagner of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. “You don’t destroy a Michelangelo. Period.”
Francis Wickham, a retired architect who has been involved in the fight to restore the building to its original state, says, “For architects of a certain generation, it’s a building of awe.”
The building also represents a specific era in representative government, says Wickham, when in the 1960s the county made the switch from being run by a board of town supervisors to elected officials representing different areas of the county. Rudolph thought that the building should demonstrate itself “as a symbol of a different regime,” says Khorsandi.
One Orange County legislator says that fact alone makes the building “historic,” even though some in the county argue that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the small town’s more quaint buildings. “It is historic—it represents what happened,” says Myrna Kemnitz.
Over the years, the building has already been altered so that sections were partitioned off and some walls painted black because the rooms let in too much light, says Kemnitz.
Former Orange County executive Ed Diana, in office from 2002 to January 2014, made up his mind years ago to get rid of the building, recalls Nancy Hull Kearing, a local artist who has been involved in the fight. “He announced he would demolish and build something new,” she says.
Diana says that the problem wasn’t aesthetics but functionality. “Every county executive that ever sat in that chair has always felt the building was inadequate, inefficient, costly to maintain, costly to heat and air condition,” he says.
As a government building, it had “very big open spaces, high ceilings, just things you wouldn’t do today in a normal office building,” Diana says.
Whether to renovate the building in keeping with the original Rudolph plan, tear it down totally, or do some sort of compromise renovation that nods to the Rudolph design has embroiled Goshen for the past year. Design Lab Architects, a Boston-based firm that specializes in restoring Paul Rudolph works, pulled out of the process. Robert Miklos, a principal with the firm, says that they left the project “for professional and ethical reasons.”
“Nobody appreciated how important this resource, the building, was,” he says. His firm “felt uncomfortable with a lot of the decisions that were being made,” including removing all of the original concrete “against our intense objections.”
Enter Gene Kaufman. A New York City architect with the firm Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman, which renovated the Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture Building at Yale, Kaufman came to the county and offered to buy the building, renovate it into an artists’ center, and build a totally new government building nearby. But the proposal never made it through the approval process even though Kaufman says that his plan would save the county millions compared to rebuilding on the footprint of the Rudolph building.
“We as a firm had a unique perspective and reason to believe that this was something feasible and successful,” Kaufman says. “And the failure to do so—the destruction of the building—would be a catastrophic loss.”
Kaufman wanted to turn the building into “a place where artists could live and work,” says Kearing. “Here’s a very reasonable alternative to demolishing the building.”
Neuhaus disputes the notion that Kaufman’s plan was ever a slam dunk. Within the legislature, he says, there were concerns about the project turning into a “white elephant.”
“What happens if the artists’ project doesn’t happen? Then you would have to demolish the entire building,” he says. Meanwhile, the local legislators were growing impatient to move forward, he says, and so were willing to vote on rebuilding in order to help breathe some life back into the downtown area sooner.
The battle now seems to be heading to the courts. Michael Sussman, a Goshen-based attorney, says he’s working on a lawsuit with “a group of citizens who believe their tax dollars are being misspent and wasted.” Vincent Ferri, a forensic investigator, has already filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, arguing that the destruction of the building is not only a violation of federal historic preservation requirements, but also constitutes, collusion, bid rigging, price fixing, fraud, and judicial misconduct.
“I’ve been in this field for 40 years on the advocacy side, and I cannot think of such an odd preservation story,” says Sanchis of the World Monuments Fund.
The building has become a symbol of what anti-preservationists don’t like, says Khorsandi. “Landmarks hit 50 and they say, ‘Okay, we’ve saved enough of the old stuff.’”
Former county executive Diana uses almost the same words. “The building is almost 50 years old now. At certain points, buildings have outlived their usefulness, regardless of who the architect is.”
“We’re down to just a minute before midnight,” says the retired architect Wickham, “and the death warrant has been written by this administration and legislature.”