N.Y. County Debates Future of Paul Rudolph's Government Center

When civic leaders in Orange County, N.Y., wanted a new office building in the 1960s, they commissioned architect Paul Rudolph, then chairman of the Yale School of Architecture, to create something new, something avant garde for the town of Goshen. Rudolph delivered, producing the Orange County Government Center, a concrete Brutalist classic featuring a series of extruding boxes that call to mind the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Now, more than 40 years later, Orange County officials, citing a leaky roof and mold, are again looking for something new and different. Orange County Executive Edward Diana announced plans last August to tear down the three-building complex, constructed between 1963 and 1971, and replace it with a $114 million center.

Demolition, however, isn't a certainty. Next Wednesday, the county will release a request for proposals "to determine the most economical and efficient plan for the consolidation of various county departments and use of [the] existing 24-acre parcel," the request states. Proposals, which are due at the end of February, can include, but are not limited to the "demolition of the existing building … the analysis of the cost of renovating the existing Government Center … and conceptual plans of new Government Center Complex."  

Orysia Dmytrenko, a spokesperson for Orange County, says that the county will select the winning proposal in April. (Orange County Executive Edward Diana was unavailable for comment.)

According to the document, the current center could be renovated, giving hope to preservationists, who say that bulldozing Rudolph's work is not a "green" choice.

"It's just a huge waste to take down this building with one-foot-thick concrete walls that would last forever," says Erin Tobin, regional director of technical and grant programs at the Preservation League of New York State, who toured the building in November. "Certainly it's a lot more economical to insulate the roof than to demolish the building. How much space in a landfill is this building going to take up? It's not just about the architecture; it's about good government."

Tourists visit the Orange County Government Center to learn from Rudolph's design. Sean Khorsandi, co-director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation, points out that Rudolph designed the building to last. "It's a complex building that gives you a sense of wonderment," he says. "You can't read the building from the exterior; that's what he's trying to say."

According to Nancy Hull Kearing, chair of the Committee for the Future of Orange County Government Center at the Orange County League of Women Voters, county taxpayers may balk at the cost of the building's demolition and the new $114 million complex.

"There's the dollars and cents argument. It seems like a horrendous waste when we have this fantastic building," says Nancy Hull Kearing, chairman.

This week Kearing nominated the Orange County Government Center to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, to be announced in June. Kearing is also organizing a forum this spring on preserving Modernist architecture in the area.

"Aesthetically, Goshen is a quaint little upstate New York village, so [the Orange County Government Center] kind of crash-landed here in some people's minds," says David Church, Orange County planning commissioner. "Other people have gotten used to it."

Although a handful of Rudolph's 287 works have been demolished in recent years, including Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., Khorsandi hopes that changing values will save the Orange County Government Center. "So many things that were threatened a year and a half ago are now safe. Other things that were never threatened, there's more appreciation for them," Khorsandi says. "Moods and attitudes are shifting."

Also threatened: Rudolph's Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, N.Y.

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Submitted by ddddumas at: February 28, 2011
Leaking roofs and improperly functioning HVAC equipment are insufficient reasons to raze any building. Repair or complete replacement of both these systems can be done at a small fraction of the cost of a new structure. This building has much embeded energy that should not be squandered. It can be updated. Maybe those pushing for the of tearing down Rudolph's building design have financial or other undisclosed vested interests.Tell the truth; only a despot would tear down a building just because he didn't like the architectural style. If you long for grandma's house, go see her!

Submitted by Hugh at: January 26, 2011
I have been in the county building probably close to 40 times since the mid 1980s. Not only is the roof leaking, but the air conditioning and heating systems were always inconsistent. Most of the time it was either too cold or two hot. I am a graduate of the University of Georgia's historic preservation program and I agree strongly with arkatec in the inappropriateness of the design in such a village with a strong and overwhelming historic fabric. A better choice for the design 40 years ago would have been a colonial revival campus with departments located in individual buildings, The sense of scale of this building is unmanagable.

Submitted by arkatec at: January 21, 2011
As a property owner and taxpayer, as well as an architect, with a preservation background, I dread each time I have to go into this building which was indeed inappropriately placed in our historic county seat. I do not believe that it is one of Rudolph's finer works, As an young architect in the 1960's I studied a number of his buildings. Perhaps worthy of preservation in a city such as Columbus Indiana, The structure was and is inappropriate for Goshen New York.