I drove into the picture-book village of Goshen, New York, past the Gothic-style church that dominates Main Street. A bit farther on I came to the pile of concrete boxes that some deem a masterpiece.
The Orange County Government Center, by the once-famed architect Paul Rudolph, may soon have a date with the wrecking ball.
No one would confuse the 1971 building with the usual anonymous blob of soulless government bureaucracy. Beefy piers hold up three stories of long boxcar shapes that look as if they had been frozen in the process of chugging past one another. Massive plate-glass windows fill the staggered, sliced-off ends.
It’s a magnetic composition of offices and law courts that has been closed since storms last fall flooded the basement and opened leaks in some of the 80 separate roof levels.
The storms were the last straw for County Executive Edward A. Diana, who says the building is one big maintenance headache. He would like to see it torn down in favor of a new, larger structure. “It’s about efficiency and effectiveness,” he said in an interview.
Rudolph was an unsentimentally Modernist showman, whose most celebrated work was created in the 1960s and 1970s when buildings in brawny concrete were thought to ennoble. That so-called Brutalist era hasn’t worn well, and several of Rudolph’s buildings are either threatened or have been torn down.
He is best known for the Yale Art and Architecture Building, which suffered many rough years before blossoming again after a painstaking 2008 renovation.
Diana is the primary advocate of bulldozing the Orange County building. Democratic county legislators and a group called Taxpayers for Orange County are resisting the Republican county executive largely on fiscal grounds. The World Monuments Fund has listed it as a threatened landmark, which it hopes will spur recognition of its architectural quality.
I drove to Goshen, about an hour northwest of New York City, to see for myself if this Rudolph deserved a reprieve. It’s not an easy call.
Insistently attention-grabbing in photos, the building reveals a surprising delicacy in person. Rudolph’s complicated shape-making domesticates the building’s institutional scale. He then undercuts that savvy choice by setting it well back from the street, so that it presides like a manor house on its oversized 24-acre site. Officials over the years have brutalized what was supposed to be a tree-veiled setting by paving much of the property.
From the parking lot, I ascended a gentle flight of crumbling stairs, where a densely planted hidden courtyard opens as a surprise. Rudolph set the main entrances for the three wings around this garden. It isn’t readily accessible to the disabled, so in recent years a service door at parking-lot level has served as a cramped, uninviting entry.
That’s too bad, because Rudolph didn’t intend to send citizens down long, coldly lit hallways. He choreographed an unveiling of the building. Inside, huge plate-glass windows light a dramatic ascent up sets of stairs, with balconies zooming overhead, a stairway posed contrapuntally, and shafts of concrete rising to mysterious heights, set aglow by clerestory windows.
The intricacy of Rudolph’s spatial gymnastics entices without overwhelming. He dignifies the mundane tasks of paying taxes, filing permits, and appearing in court.
Even with poor lighting and the litter of moving boxes, I could see that the building demands a great deal of its citizen owners. Rudolph conceived every inch in three dimensions, so floors and ceilings terrace up and down in a dizzying number of levels. This topography is neither space efficient nor friendly to those with limited mobility.
It isn’t easy to keep so many roof planes free of leaks. Replacing the huge rusting, energy-wasting windows would be costly.
The building is also challenging to restore because Diana and his predecessors have neglected it. Roof water puddles because protective tiles have crumbled, impeding the flow to drains. No one seems to have fixed areas that persistently leak. A report commissioned by the county executive shows a litany of deferred maintenance.
The report estimates that $67 million is needed to renovate the building, while a much larger strip-mall Georgian replacement could cost $136 million.
These numbers depend on too many unknowns, which doesn’t make the decision to raze or renovate any easier.
A renovation sensitive both to technical challenges and civic possibilities could reveal a building of great character if not traditional beauty. I am reminded of the lurid exoticism of the Victorian Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, which fell out of fashion. Now we love what’s left and mourn the lost landmarks.
I cannot guarantee that time will similarly resuscitate Rudolph’s reputation. The Orange County Government Center makes a powerful case for itself.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)