Home > Clem Labine > Taxpayer Revolt Adopts Preservation’s Reasoning

Taxpayer Revolt Adopts Preservation’s Reasoning

April 20th, 2012

Completed in 1971, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY, was shut down indefinitely after extensive flooding in 2011. Because of the building’s record of continual roof leaks and high heating and cooling bills, the county executive has urged its demolition and replacement. But a coalition of taxpayers and preservationists assert that it is more economical and environmentally responsible to renovate and expand the existing structure. Photo: Chris Mottalini

An abandoned building in the village of Goshen, NY, is in the middle of a strange battle over whether the structure should be restored or torn down. What makes this fight unusual is the way opposing sides line up: Context-sensitive preservationists are on the side saying “tear it down,” while among those urging the building’s preservation is a taxpayer group that normally has little interest in historic architecture.

The building at the center of this controversy is the Orange County Government Center situated on Goshen’s Main Street. The structure was completed in 1971 to a design by then-starchitect Paul Rudolph and is considered by many to be a masterpiece of the Brutalist style. The World Monuments Fund has even placed it on its watch list of threatened cultural heritage sites in need of protection.

Although considered an architectural icon by acolytes of Modernism, in many ways the Government Center is a hard building to love. For openers, it is despised by many local residents because it is so out of character with the prevailing architectural context of the community, which consists largely of vernacular buildings from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. So when Edward A. Diana, the executive for Orange County, declared that he wanted to demolish the structure, many local residents cheered him on.

This 1830s building, which now houses the Goshen Library & Historical Society, is typical of the vernacular architecture found throughout the picturesque community. Given this setting, it’s easy to see why many residents feel that the Paul Rudolph building detracts from the town’s distinctive character. But sustainability issues may trump contextual aesthetics in this case. Photo: Adam Elmquist

Diana’s decision was not based primarily on architectural taste, however, but rather on operational and maintenance problems. The Rudolph building has 87 individual flat roofs, which have been prone to leaks since the building opened. The many changing levels of the interior mean it is not friendly to the disabled, and the single-glazed windows make the building expensive to heat and cool. The last straw occurred last September when heavy rains flooded the basement and the building was evacuated permanently. Diana sees the structure as one big maintenance headache and wants it torn down to be replaced by a new, larger structure that is more in keeping with the town’s architectural character.

The current dispute is whether it is more cost effective to renovate and expand the 1971 building or to tear it down and replace it. A preliminary report by the county estimated that a new, larger building would cost $136 million, while a renovation of the Rudolph building would run $67 million. However, the taxpayer group disputes the projections, claiming that the costs of an entirely new complex are under estimated, while the estimates for renovating the old building are inflated.

Most interesting of all is the way the taxpayer group also embraces the language of sustainability and environmental costs in making the case for recycling the old building.

Myrna Kemnitz, a county legislator, puts it this way: “We must contemplate a realistic cost of asbestos detection, abatement and containment for this building. If there is asbestos in the concrete, in concrete is the best containment place for it to remain. Then there is the charge for cartage of the rubble to a landfill and the reckoning of the space it will take up, and restoration/renovation uses far less energy than tearing down and building anew. Environmentally, retrofitting is far kinder than demolishing and building anew.”

It is heartening to see the language of sustainability being injected into mainstream discourse. For me personally, if environmental costs were not a factor, I would gladly urge the demolition of the existing Rudolph building. Yes, it is a historic architectural artifact. But it was a mistake to place such an aggressively non-contextual building in that picturesque town in the first place. As Steve Semes argues so persuasively in his new book, The Future of the Past, preserving the existing special character of a place should be the primary factor guiding any new construction in older neighborhoods.

But as legislator Kemnitz points out, we’re not starting with a clean slate here; hundreds of tons of concrete have already been poured. So if we believe all the things we say about adaptive reuse, embodied energy and recycling old buildings, I reluctantly conclude that the environmentally responsible thing to do is see if there are cost-effective ways the 1971 Rudolph building can be reused. Globally, we’ve reached a point where environmental costs trump aesthetic taste.

Clem Labine

  1. Marc
    April 21st, 2012 at 14:59 | #1

    I think the issue is more a matter of preserving what is lovable. Maybe Orange County let the building deteriorate in the first place because no one really loved it (who’s going to maintain something they don’t care about)? Yes, econometrically it may be a lot cheaper to refurbish an ugly hunk of concrete than to build a new contextual building, but is it worth spending money to refurbish a building that most non-architects consider ugly and unlovable?

    If possible, why not sink the repair money into a new building that will be timelessly lovable? No one argues over the worthiness of maintaining old Beaux Arts government buildings! So IMO spending money to preserve an eyesore (which will probably fall apart again in short order since the design is inherently dysfunctional) is far more wasteful and “unsustainable” than spending even more money to build something universally beautiful that will last for the ages.

  2. Usher73
    April 24th, 2012 at 22:02 | #2

    Put bars on the windows. It looks like it would make a great prison.

  3. Truth
    April 25th, 2012 at 13:33 | #3

    Whether its ugly or beautiful, the real issue for taxpayers in the long run should be the cost of running/using the building. The problem with architects who live in the world of cardboard models and drawings is that, as in this case, they are divorced from the day-to-day realities of the actual human beings who live and work in the spaces they devise. Leaky, creaky, and decaying buildings are just as environmentally dangerous to their inhabitants and neighbors as the removal of them might be. Building a modern structure with modern standards of environmental, maintenance, and systems functionality can or cannot be beautiful too, and certainly ornate govt. buildings with gold domes are pricey, but surely there’s a compromise that will insure safety, efficiency, and common sense. Happily or sadly, there are plenty of other examples of this style on the planet–and by the way, any artist dumb enough to actually NAME a style “brutalist” is just asking for less brutal future generations to throw it out with the trash.

  4. AMC
    April 30th, 2012 at 23:51 | #4

    Paul Rudolph was recognized as one of the world leading architects in the 1960’s to the 1990’s. The Orange County Government Center is a known landmark around the world – even if not appreciated locally. Forget about the style – it is unique and without question a LANDMARK ! Rudolph’s building may be hated by local residents or county employees – but it is admired by many around the world and adds prestige to Orange County! The fact that the building has become inefficient and more space is needed – presents a RARE AND UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY that should not be overlooked. By the way – there are many modern headquarter buildings in architecturaly historic areas that are considered good neighbors – they are hidden away in wooded environments – not smack up next to traditionally styled buildings.
    Just the fact that the Orange County Government Complex was designed by a world famous architect does not necessarily make the building economically viable, in fact if Rudolph focused on style at the expense of functionality – many of the complaints are justified – but still, why couldn’t a compromise be worked out – where its renovation would address both energy efficiency and functionality. If the building now needs to be expanded – couldn’t parts of the original building become a library/arts center/museum/community center, or serve other auxiluary functions, while a new addition could house those functions that did not work properly in the original structure. Orange County could even hold a design competition that might attract the most talented architects who would present a variety of solutions – to preserve the best of the old and blend a new respectful addition. The renovation can address the functionality issues while incorporating the most current energy efficienct technology resulting in a new, cost effective and unique headquarters – A NEW LANDMARK – that all can be proud of!

  5. August 19th, 2012 at 17:20 | #5

    I think if the cost of renovation is higher than building a new one, then Diana made a good decision of demolishing it.

  6. Newburgh Resident
    September 19th, 2012 at 16:55 | #6

    As a tax-payer in Newburgh, NY- Orange County, and a proud advocate of classicism. I also appreciate this building immensely and it’s example of a movement in history just like all other styles. Ed Diana and other local governments have run the municipalities into the ground. We pay $13,000 a year on our home taxes and we are surrounded by garbage, mattresses, violence, no police, and no codes enforcement. While the absentee slum lords are allowed to thrive. The cost of re-using this building is the correct way to spend our money- of course they say it costs more to renovate- they are all in his pocket- Ed Diana just wants a monument to himself and his cronies can be paid off with this project. Meanwhile many important historic structures are sitting vacant in Newburgh, Goshen and other towns…maybe they could invest in public transportation???? Really, wake up! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle- it’s all we have, bring life back to these historic structures and town and give people the basic infrastructure they deserve and currently lack.

  7. Laura Shechter
    October 8th, 2012 at 11:31 | #7

    I couldn’t find your email to put on my mailing list for future art exhibitions as we spoke last night.
    My husband and I thought that your lecture was great Laura Shechter