TRAIL GUIDE
Our experts score the debate: How Clinton beat Trump, round-by-round
NATION

New York preservationists, officials square off over concrete boxes

Is a Brutalist building made of concrete boxes a masterpiece or eyesore? A judge will soon give his opinion

From the beginning, the hulking edifice drew furrowed brows in Goshen, a lovingly preserved town with a harness racing museum, village green and buildings harking back to the Revolutionary War.

On a Main Street lined with brick colonial and Victorian structures, the modern county government center appeared to have dropped like an alien spaceship into the bucolic surroundings, with its rough-textured concrete finish and its Lego-like blocks protruding like rectangular eyes from its core.

The interior was maze-like, with so many doors and potential escape hatches that officials fretted about how to ensure security during high-profile criminal trials. By 2004, officials were eyeing the possibility of replacing the building, complaining that rain seeped through the 87 flat roofs and that the large windows made the structure expensive to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

But one person's leaky roof is another person's mere annoyance, a trade-off for occupying an eminent building that can be remedied with a well-placed bucket.

And so for years a battle has been brewing in Goshen, the seat of Orange County north of New York City, over a building that is both reviled and revered, with a future as uncertain as that of a death row inmate.

In the latest reprieve, a judge has ordered a halt to demolition work until July while opposing sides argue over the fate of the structure that American architect Paul Rudolph, a master of Brutalism, was commissioned to build in 1963 as the Orange County Government Center. It was completed in 1971.

On one side are local lawmakers who favor a major overhaul of the structure, which has been closed since flooding and leaks from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 turned it into a dank mess. They are at odds with preservationists who favor saving the building and erecting a new government center.

Last month, a judge said he would decide by July 1 whether to grant an injunction to stop what preservationists say would be a dastardly renovation that would dramatically alter the building's appearance and erase most traces of Rudolph's style. In the meantime, he ordered a halt to any demolition work except asbestos removal.

The ruling doesn't appear to have satisfied either side. Proponents of renovation say as long as the structure is shuttered, businesses are losing money because county employees are working and spending elsewhere, and residents are being inconvenienced by the lack of services in Goshen.

"The heart and soul of this friendly village depended on that building," said Fran Scott, whose insurance company occupies a small building across the street from the Rudolph structure.

Like most residents, she noted that its style does not match the rest of the village.

Whatever is done, Scott said, she can't understand why it is taking the county so long to make a decision that would get people back into the building and spending money at the mom and pop delis, taverns and bakeries that make up the bulk of downtown's businesses.

"For it to take as long as it has to figure this out is disheartening," she said.

Architectural purists say the county's idea of renovation is unacceptable. They favor a deal that would sell the property to preservationists who want to use it as an arts center and who have offered to build another county government building.

Michael Sussman, an attorney representing plaintiffs trying to block the renovation project, says the real issue is not so much preservation as government abuse of power.

"It's about more than a building," said Sussman, whose lawsuit accuses county officials of angling to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars "to destroy the integrity and primary architectural features" of the building. The price tag for the renovation plan has been estimated at more than $70 million.

"It is more about integrity and transparency," said Sussman, contending that the sale to arts patrons is a reasonable solution. "For those who don't feel it's a functional government center, they may be right. For those dubious about renovation, they may be right. But another party is willing to bear those risks and change it to something wonderful."

On a hot, humid afternoon recently, the building was off-limits to all but the construction workers inside doing what the county says is asbestos removal. A low fence allowed a clear view of the building, which resembled a rambling dormitory or grubby housing project, with its brown exterior stained by decades of exposure to the elements. Inside, vertical blinds hung from the windows. Outside, a pile of debris mounted as workers tossed out the detritus of disuse.

"It just needs to be cleaned up, that's all," said Lester Settle, who was walking through the parking lot toward a courthouse adjacent to the government center. "Why not use it for apartments or condos?"

A woman who did not want to be named because she works for the county said she thought the building was too ugly for Goshen. "I know it's historic, but look at it," she said while taking a smoke break outside. "It doesn't match with anything else in this town."

The building is one of several Rudolph creations to face threats in recent years, derided by critics who consider Brutalism's often fortress-like designs unsightly.

Rudolph, who died in 1997 after a career designing structures as diverse as beach houses in Florida and skyscrapers in Asia, might agree.

In a 1959 interview, when he was chairman of Yale University's Department of Architecture, Rudolph described an architect as someone concerned with building "meaningfully."

"As opposed to someone who is interested in building efficiently, or sometimes even beautifully," he said.

Twitter: @tinasusman

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
95°