A Brutalist complex meant to represent progressive government through ambitious design is no longer. What happened to Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center?
The answer boils down to local politics, clashing design visions, and a sobering reality: There’s something sadly diminished in the kind of architecture American government chooses for itself today.
Rudolph was asked by the county legislature in 1975 to contribute to a settlement payout in response to a lawsuit filed by the general contractor on the project. In 1977, his final year in office, Mills issued a memorandum to the legislature’s Finance Committee expressing concern over the complex’s appearance and lack of maintenance funds.
Government Center’s decline only continued. Those same courtrooms that were supposed to usher in a new era of progressive justice were declared unfit for use by the state Court Facilities Capital Review Board in 1997, the same year Rudolph died. A traditionalist-style courthouse opened next to the complex in 2000, with other offices moving into the space left behind.
In 2002, new county executive Ed Diana, a Republican, first announced his interest in completely replacing the facility. Legislature Democrats pushed back, and while Diana conceded at the time, it was clear he wanted the building gone.
In 2010, Diana dropped his plan to build a $114 million Government Center, and would instead explore options for replacing some or all of the complex. The Paul Rudolph Foundation asked the New York State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) shortly after if the buildings would be eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. SHPO informed Diana that it would.
But just one week later, Hurricane Irene hit Goshen. Tropical Storm Lee hit shortly after. Diana, while giving a press tour of the flooding and mold in Government Center, said at the time, “As far as I’m concerned, we’ll never occupy it again.”
Diana asked again for a total demolition and replacement of the complex. In 2012, thanks in part to a backlash from preservationists—including a petition of over 2,000 signatures from around the world, according to World Monuments Fund—the plan failed to get a two-thirds majority vote from the county legislature. Shortly after, The Times Herald-Record published a post-Irene analysis of the building from FEMA which Diana did not share with the legislature before voting on the Government Center’s fate. It disputed the county executive’s claim that the complex was unusable as a result of the storm. Instead, it concluded that a majority of its damages were the result of questionable construction quality, poor design detailing, years of deferred maintenance, and a poorly done renovation in 2009.
FEMA determined that a county consultant used inappropriate methods to evaluate air samples for mold. As for roof damages, “any maintenance performed was very poorly accomplished,” FEMA concluded, “and often with materials inappropriate for the particular application.”
County consultants had estimated $10.5 million in damages from Irene. FEMA, after first offering $500,000 in aid for Government Center, eventually awarded the county $3.6 million.
In the middle of all of this arrived designLAB, a Boston-based firm that was already working on another Rudolph renovation. “We were in the construction phase at UMass Dartmouth, completely renovating the main campus library’s building systems,” says Robert Miklos, founder of designLAB. “We learned about the controversy in Goshen and wrote an open letter to the legislature letting them know that we were economically renovating a building from the same era and architect. A group of them came from Goshen to Dartmouth and toured the building.” They left impressed.
Miklos and designLAB joined Clark Patterson Lee on the project and was first asked to put together a new building assessment study, followed by a reuse study for all three buildings. Some political maneuvering intervened, however. “The majority of Republicans wanted it torn down, and the Democrats were for saving it,” Miklos says. Eventually, a compromise was reached: The most problematic of the three buildings would be looked at for replacement while working through a budget for a full renovation within the county’s target figure of $60 million.
Diana was on board with the legislature-approved plan by December 2013, his final month as county executive. But project estimates increased to $85 million in early 2014; designLAB quietly resigned from the project after the state’s review for historic buildings was ignored in the design process. Clark Patterson Lee’s design called for demolishing and replacing one of Rudolph’s buildings entirely and stripping the corrugated concrete block facades of the other two; it was criticized by SHPO. Even though Orange County never registered the complex for historic designation, the project couldn’t receive FEMA money for the project without adhering to state preservation guidelines.
Work on Clark Patterson Lee’s cladded and glass-enveloped addition is now wrapping up on the site. Same for the remaining two original buildings, which have been stripped down to their bones and re-dressed as duller versions of themselves.
One side of Government Center’s new addition apologizes for itself through a tinted glass curtain wall, allowing for the reflections of Rudolph’s work and older buildings across Main Street to still define the view. On the south and west ends, however, there’s less glass and nowhere to hide. The new primary entrance, facing a surface lot, resembles a hastily designed new high school for an affluent suburb. This side of the building stretches from the courthouse on the north end, to the now-renovated Rudolph building on the south end. From this view, there is no relationship with and no respect for Rudolph’s design. “It’s strangely brazen, but for what purpose I don’t know,” says Rohan. “I wonder how people who decried the Rudolph scheme as too modern, acontextual, and unsuitable for this historic town could find this new building better.”
When asked if he has any regrets about the outcome of this project, Neuhaus says he wishes the legislature had “authorized a complete demolition and construction in a more traditional architectural format” right after Diana shut down the building. “But my number-one priority once the design was chosen by the legislature, was to bring the project in on time and on budget and let Orange County’s residents have a centralized place to access many governmental services.”