Lessons Learned from the Orange County Government Center

NewHSGODZILLAThe quest to save the Orange County Government Center from an extensive renovation project was lost by the local preservation groups, despite their best efforts to publicize the importance of the building to the history of architecture.  Its remodeling plan called for all but the superstructure of the building to be stripped out, and new construction built into the empty shell.  For certain it will no longer express the vision of the Architect, Paul Rudolph, as originally intended.

Orange County Government Center as of 5-16-2016
Orange County Government Center as of 5-16-2016

The County Executive Office heralds this plan as economically sound…it gets rid of the mold that was allowed to permeate the building without the expensive demolition and subsequent costs of building a brand new building in its place.   The County calls the project a compromise that resulted in the preservation of some of the building.   Historic preservation advocates did not agree.  They favored the restoration of the building to the original design.   A developer offered to buy the building and turn it into an arts center.  The advocates protested and filed for a temporary injunction to stop the demolition, which was overturned on appeals.  An unflattering (but yet oddly amusing) picture of a protest sign from last year appears above.

Goshen Streetscape showing the former County Government Center built in 1887 and "Lawyer's Row" in the background.
Goshen Streetscape showing the former Government Center built in 1887 and “Lawyer’s Row” in the background.

The community of Goshen has always had a love-hate relationship with the building.  The building, when it was built, was completely out of character with the community’s downtown environment, which is dominated by late 1700 to early 1900 architecture. Because of the threats to architectural and community character (in part represented by this very building),  Goshen started a robust historical preservation program that has helped the community maintain its sense of character.  Design guidelines have insured that no other modern buildings have invaded the downtown area to any great degree, and encouraged the maintenance of older buildings, which house a number of funky, homey, small businesses mostly oriented at serving the government center employees.

However, with the close of the government center, the business community of Goshen has suffered greatly.  Everyone on both sides of the table said that some decision needed to be made “right now” in order to save the business community.  Hence, the idea of remodeling the building.  I was in favor of selling the building to a bold entrepreneur who wanted to convert the space into artists lofts after restoration.

Is the remodeling preservation?  I don’t think so,  it is an adaptive reuse of the old building,  but understanding Paul Rudolf’s design requires the original interior to be intact.  At this point,  I hope that however the building is remodeled, that the new design can live up to the aspirations of the architect that came before him and it is something that residents of Goshen, and citizens of Orange County can be proud.

The original blog appears below:

The Orange County Government Center: What’s the Message?
The Village of Goshen’s architectural style is dominated by those styles popular starting at the end of the 1700’s to the early 1900’s. Similar to many of the Northeastern communities, Goshen’s dominant architectural styles have foundations in architectural design elements that date back to ancient Greece. These elements: the columns, trim, pediments, door shapes and more, create a visual language that is instinctively understood by those that enter these buildings; by providing references to stability, comfort and strength. If the buildings could speak through design, the overall message conveyed by the use of classical design elements is clear: “enduring stable, and trustworthy.” Even if materials change, the visual component has a balance that has spanned many cultures and many centuries. This “language” of classical style is commonly expressed in many new urbanism projects, and continues to be popular. And if older buildings have these features, they are often targeted by groups for protection and preservation. I admit, I like these styles as well, and I’m ready to help further preservation of classically styled buildings because they have earned a place in history.
So, imagine this traditional and classically building setting for a cutting edge modern style…Does it make sense? The story of the Orange County Government Center, designed by internationally known architect Paul Rudolph in 1963 and built in 1967 is exactly this situation. I would say, most definitely it does make sense, and the historical context of those actions are participated by our cultural values and community in the area of when it was built.
If you place yourself in 1960’s it was one of growing intellectual freedom, growing confident middle classes, innovation in design and thought, and a sincere attempt to break from the traditions that had dominated American culture since it was imported from the many western Europeans that helped to make this country what it was. Many new American innovations changed how we communicated, learned and even fought for what we believed in. As a result, places we did business would become a reflection of those beliefs.
Paul Rudolph is one of many American architects that strived to create a unique language of architectural building elements that are unique to the culture in which it was created. He labeled this building as the “Brutalist Style” because of the austere and unapproachable look of the poured concrete used to create the exterior of the building. Paul Rudolph was a contemporary of other innovative American architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, who had inspired and taught many American Architects, and Bruce Goff, who like Paul Rudolph served in the Navy as an architect and later became a dean of a school of architecture in the 1960’s. Having extensively studied the latter two architects and their works, the Orange County Government Center reminds me a little of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, because of its use of cantilevered concrete, and a little of Bruce Goff, because of the expressiveness and organic quality the building possesses, despite the use of concrete as a primary facing. The building rises from the ground not unlike houses built by cliff faces by ancient populations of Native Americans or what I would imagine as the hanging garden of Babylon.

This building has been a subject of long controversy in Orange County, NY. Because of its modern design, many residents of Goshen were not eager to embrace the design for many years after it was built. The historic district skirts around the edge of this property and is not subject to design review when changes have occurred. It is plagued with inappropriate interior renovations that detract from the original design envisioned by the architect, and the landscaping plan, which was an integral part of the design, was not fully implemented and makes the building seem more out of place. When it flooded in 2011, the County Executive saw it as an opportunity to lobby to demolish the building and build a new Government Center, maybe something with classical architecture elements to match the new County Courthouse at great expense to the county taxpayers. To underscore the need to replace the building, damage was not repaired despite available funding through FEMA.

This controversy of what do to with the building recently reached a head when the County Legislator vetoed a bill to sell the building to an arts supporter who envisioned restoring the building to its former glory, and use it as an international arts center. I have been told that he has even offered to build a new county government center at a price that was well below estimates of other firms in order to secure this building, and agreed to allow the County to use parts of the building as county courts once fully renovated.
This indecision on what to do about the building has resulted in the general decline of businesses in downtown Goshen, suffering greatly from the loss of business traffic from the Orange County Government Center. As a result, Orange County has suffered a loss of income from the taxes received from those businesses. The Goshen business community is desperate to get this situation resolved, and will seemingly accept any solution that does not leave this building a vacant eyesore in Goshen.

So this is the question that I would like to ask: What if we were to imagine if the building could weigh in on this decision? Going back to the idea of what this building is trying to say to us, my first thought is “be strong and innovative.” The year that Paul Rudolph completed the design for this building, we almost went to war with Cuba and then Russia. Two years after it was built, Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Besides controversy, the sixties brought us a wave of new artists and innovators that were breaking from every tradition they could imagine. The by-product of this thinking moves us forward as a society and community.
Today more than ever, I think that we need the message conveyed by this building. I think that the use of the building as an arts center is a fitting adaptive reuse of this building, and serves to remind us how important it is for us to keep those things that can inspire creativity in future generations in our minds and hearts. Let’s continue to let this building speak to us.

Welcome to the New face of Preservation News

I know that I may have a few followers that have wondered what happened to my blog…

Well, a few months ago I decided to move my entire blog to another platform. I still have my blog on Typepad, but as soon as I get content started here, I’ll delete it from typepad and will be using my new wordpress platform website. I’ll be updating the articles that I originally posted with a followup article (because I want to know too) and posting articles about new things that I’ve experienced and learned in the field. So be patient, part of my task involves learning how best to use the new platform, which may be switched around as I find one that I like. If you have any questions or comments, or would like to recommend a good topic to cover, feel free to email me at susanrothaicp@gmail.com.

Celebrating the Evolution of Historic Preservation