Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It was a brutal year for concrete architecture.
Brutalism lost the good fight in 2015. One of its most important icons, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, fell to the wrecking ball this year. Paul Rudolph’s many-eyed monster should still be standing today.
The odds were never so stacked against it as its detractors might think. The Government Center has been on the chopping block since 2011, when it was damaged by Hurricane Irene following decades of neglect. Its supporters rallied this year, when Gene Kaufman, a prominent New York architect, offered to buy and restore the building to turn it into an artists’ residency and exhibit space. Kaufman even offered to design a new government building next door—for millions less than what Orange County was looking to pay. “A no-brainer,” as Michael Kimmelman put it in The New York Times.
The local daily, The Times Herald-Record, nodded in agreement. “What started for [Kaufman] as a hope to preserve a unique building has turned into something else, a chance for the county and especially the Village of Goshen to get more and spend less than they have considered in any other circumstance,” one editorial reads. By tearing down the Government Center, the county was giving up a cultural asset others had deemed valuable—as in purchasable.
Steven Neuhaus, the Orange County executive, nevertheless plowed ahead, vetoing a county bill to hear out Kaufman’s proposal for a “two-building solution.” County legislators declined to override the executive’s veto, and efforts by one attorney to stall the process through the courts ultimately failed. In lieu of a combined government complex and arts center, Orange County is proceeding with a demolition and replacement scheme that has been rife with cost overruns, charges of nepotism, and accusations of environmental neglect.
“County residents are looking to us right now to stop a runaway train,” one lawmaker told The Times Herald-Record earlier this year.
What a waste. Bids to complete a new building arrived in line with the county’s budget projections in December, but still, the city is not getting as much for its money. Even critics who reject Brutalism for more-or-less ideological reasons—namely the anti-intellectual charge that Heroic Concrete is “ugly”—ought to see that Orange County bungled this one. Any building neglected for decades, sacked by a Category 3 hurricane, then slobberknockered by Superstorm Sandy would have fared as poorly (or worse). Only an architectural gem would draw suitors promising to buy it, preserve it, and return it to the tax rolls, despite the battering it had taken.
Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center isn’t the only significant building that the architectural community lost in 2015. The demolition of Baltimore’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, designed by John M. Johansen of the “Harvard Five,” finished up this year. The orders were finally signed late last fall, although the effort to clear away the Brutalist theater began back in 2012.
Johansen, who died the same year, lived long enough to see plans emerge to erase his great accomplishment. “It’s one of my best buildings, and to see it torn down—it’s very hard to take,” he told Amanda Kolson Hurley.
Recounting the details of how the city lost the Morris Mechanic is like reading through a tragedy that might have been performed there. As Hurley explains, Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation had hoped to landmark it several years back. At the same time, a developer proposed a plan that would have preserved 80 to 90 percent of the building’s exterior. Since the theatre wouldn’t change that much anyway, the city’s Planning Commission voted against the landmark designation—the first time it had rejected a landmark in 40 years. Later, those plans changed, and when they did, there was no circle of protection in place to preserve the building.
Demolition on another building by Johansen began late last year as well: Stage Theater, once known as the Mummers Theater, in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoman‘s Steve Lackmeyer called the 1970 project the number-one modernist building in the city that should have been spared. (Unfortunately, modernist and retro architecture is leveled often enough in OKC that it takes a list to keep track of it all.) Preservationists had hoped to turn it into a children’s museum. Models of the building show what a delightful museum it might have made, but that proposal didn’t gain traction fast enough.
The plans to replace the theater with towers are years old now, and the building was virtually cleared around the end of 2014. But nothing has happened since. Lackmeyer reports this week that the redevelopment scheme for the Johansen building site has hit some serious snags:
[P]romises of work starting this year . . . on two 26-story apartment towers and two 25-story office towers on the former site of Stage Center did not materialize. The project is being scoped down to two towers, one for OGE Energy Corp. and one for apartments. The height is reportedly going to be lower than planned. But as of this week, a deal has yet to conclude for any requested [public] assistance. Meanwhile, new leadership has taken over at OGE Energy Corp.
So this done deal was not so done after all. Yet Johansen’s theater is a hole in the ground all the same.
These stories (and several others from over the last year) serve as a cautionary tale: Haste makes waste. Moving too rapidly toward demolition has cost some communities irrevocable architectural wonders. Some deserving projects were torn down for opportunities that have failed to materialize, or while other options were still on the table. Executives, mayors, and councilors should move more cautiously when significant architecture is at risk. Demolition should be a last resort for projects that matter.
“[F]unctionality is not the only standard for judging a building,” Lackmeyer writes about Oklahoma City’s lost Johansen theater. “And I believe that regardless of what gets built at 214 W. Sheridan Ave., future generations will cast a harsh judgment on the demise of Stage Center.”