A version of this article, by Michael Kimmelman, appears in print on January 27, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition of the New York Times, with the headline: A Chance to Salvage a Master’s Creation
Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., is on the World Monuments Fund’s watch list.
Unless county legislators act quickly, a paragon of midcentury American idealism will be lost.
Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, in Goshen, N.Y., announces itself as a civic hub. It’s made of corrugated concrete and glass, organized into three pavilions around a courtyard, like an old wagon train around a village green.
A county proposal would tear down huge chunks of it, flatten the roof, destroy windows, swap out parts of the textured concrete facade and build what looks like an especially soul-crushing glass box. Goshen would end up with a Frankenstein’s monster, eviscerating a work that the World Monuments Fund, alarmed by precisely this turn of events, included on its global watch list alongside landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.
Haters in Orange County government have been contemplating its demise for years, allowing it to fall into disrepair and shuttering the building, citing water damage after Hurricane Irene in 2011. Pictures of the interior from the early 1970s, when the center was still new, show a complex of animated spaces, by turns intimate and grand. Later renovations ruined the inside, making it cramped and dark. Rudolph was a master of sculpturing light and space, following in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose emotionalism he married to the cool Modernism of Europeans like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier.
His style, unfortunately, came to be branded Brutalism, and turned off many. But the government center was conceived with lofty social aspirations, making tangible Rudolph’s concept of energetic governance as a democratic ideal. It was a beautiful notion; and while the architecture may never win any popularity contest, it was beautiful, too, with its poetry of asymmetric, interweaving volumes.
Although the center no longer seems to suit Orange County administrators, it can be repurposed. Gene Kaufman, the owner and principal of Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects in New York City, has offered to pay the county $5 million for the building and restore it as an artists’ live-work space, with public exhibitions. Mr. Kaufman has also offered to design a brand new government center next door for $65 million — millions less than the $74 million county officials allotted some time ago for the plan to tear down part of the building and add the glass box.
But Steven M. Neuhaus, Orange County executive, seems determined to pursue the teardown plan. MidHudsonNews.com quoted him the other day as saying that “construction and deconstruction work” will begin “by spring of this year.” He recently vetoed a proposal that would have allowed the county to sell the center to Mr. Kaufman.
County legislators meet on Feb. 5. They have a chance to override the veto. I gather that local merchants have complained about lost revenue since government workers relocated to temporary quarters after the center closed. They may be pushing for whatever is in the pipeline.
But many people who spoke at a public hearing last month in Goshen endorsed Mr. Kaufman’s proposal. It would save the center, potentially save the county a fortune, bring in tourist dollars and even put the Rudolph building on the tax rolls. Demolishing Penn Station seemed expedient to politicians and other people a half-century ago, when only a noisy bunch of architecture buffs and preservationists pleaded for its reprieve. Back then, Rudolph was a leading light in American architecture, his work the epitome of American invention and daring. He lived long enough (he died in 1997, at 78) to see his reputation decline with the rise of Post Modernism, whose own eclipse has coincided with renewed interest in Rudolph’s legacy.
Orange County legislators should take a look at his Art and Architecture Building at Yale, which Post Modernists had squarely in their cross hairs. Opened in 1963, it was restored several years ago by the firm of Gwathmey Siegel. Ugly partitions and drop ceilings from an unfortunate renovation were stripped away, years of contempt and neglect erased. Cramped, dark, byzantine spaces returned to how Rudolph intended them: light-filled, exalting, with serendipitous vistas and a communal, townlike connectedness. There’s a syncopated flow to the building. The concrete facade, its corduroy pattern bush-hammered by hand, looks quarried from some immense rock. Almost miraculous, the restoration vindicates Rudolph.
History is on the Government Center’s side, too. Here’s hoping county legislators are.
What do you think? Why do we continue to tear down our history?