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Goshen&#146s Rudolph Building Gets Reprieve (plus my video from the legislative debate)

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The Paul Rudolph-designed Orange County Government Center, now closed
All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Having attended the Orange County Legislators’ meeting last week, I now have a better understanding of the arguments on the pro-demolition side in the controversy over the Paul Rudolph-designed Orange County Government Center (OCGC) in Goshen, NY. At the end of lengthy discussion, including a public comment period and extensive legislative debate (excepted in my CultureGrrl Video, below), proponents of a knockdown garnered a narrow 11-10 majority, which fell short of the 14 votes (two-thirds) needed to proceed with the first steps towards wrecking the architectural icon. The anti-demolition forces have won, at least for now.

The sharp political divisions on the legislature echoed those in our fractious Congress, with the same dysfunctional results. One legislator called the situation a “stalemate,” noting that there was as little likelihood of getting a two-thirds vote for restoring the Rudolph as there was for getting 14 votes to knock it down. Another legislator blasted him for using the “s”-word. (Would “deadlock” have been better?)

I now can appreciate why Bloomberg architecture critic James Russell, in his recent insightful review, said that deciding which path should be followed at this restore-or-destroy crossroad is “not an easy call.” The demolitionists maintain that the building was ill-suited for its various public purposes from the get-go (as you will hear one speaker argue in my video).

Even the carefully restored Art and Architecture Building at Yale University (now renamed the Paul Rudolph Building) suggests an uneasy fit between the structure’s form and its current function. I had visited it several years ago, in the midst of renovation, but returned this week to discover that the monumental central space now sports a discordantly bright white dropped ceiling (with needed heating and cooling systems):

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Its use as workspace for architecture students has made this grand space (with its now badly soiled orange carpet) a dismayingly unsightly mess, with seemingly makeshift white partitions sprouting everywhere:

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But back to Goshen: After spending some time perusing the perimeter of the closed building during my time there, I appreciated more than ever why knocking down this stately, monumental, astonishingly complex composition would be a highly regrettable, if not deplorable, act of architectural vandalism. It’s so much more than suggested in the image at the top of this post, shot from slightly to the left of the usual vantage points for photographs. No fractional view can adequately capture the building’s cumulative grandeur.

That said, a couple of legislators expressed strong resentment against outside preservationists and architectural experts presuming to tell them how to run their county government. (A representative from the World Monuments Fund spoke at last week’s meeting, as you will hear below. I stayed in reportorial mode and kept quiet.) No one on the legislature seemed concerned about preserving an important architectural achievement. The chief argument of those who favored restoration was that it would be more cost-effective.

The “wreck-it” Republicans and the “restore-it” Democrats on the county legislature have at last found one thing they can agree on: Both sides were shocked to learn that the county administration (whose executive, Edward Diana, is spearheading the demolition drive) had withheld from the legislators a 109-page report on the condition of the OCGC, received last February from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Even if it was a draft and still subject to revision, the legislators rightly believe that this was information they should have been given in advance of their vote. The indispensable Chris Mckenna of the Times Record-Herald revealed the report’s existence in a report published Saturday, setting off a furor.

In the words of Mckenna’s follow-up report after his initial disclosure, FEMA indicated that the OCGC had “sustained little storm damage last year [from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee] and that poor maintenance [over many years] had contributed to its deterioration. Their [FEMA’s] report disputed claims of extensive mold growth [emphasis added] and said that few of the county’s requested repairs would be eligible for reimbursement” (not good news for the cost-conscious preservationists).

The demolitionists last week had repeatedly asserted that, whatever the cause, Rudolph’s leak-plagued creation has now deteriorated to such a degree that it is a “sick building” that
might be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rehabilitate.

Speaking of deferred maintenance, it appears that the county fathers didn’t bother to take out the garbage before closing the building. Here’s a view, through a window, of the former District Attorney’s office, which is now furnished with a bulging black trash bag (glimpsed past the chair, on the right):

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While we await further Orange County developments, here’s my video of excerpts from the contentious public hearing and legislators’ subsequent discussion:

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