Architects: Save the treasure in your midst

Experts say government center, a world monument, is a 'victim of a sustained act of vandalism'

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  • File photo The Orange County Government Center in Goshen.

"How lucky you are to have this masterpiece. You need to think of this building differently, like Washington's Headquarters."
Architect Joseph Giovannini

By Edie Johnson

— Last week's forum on the Orange County Government Center sounded at times like an art appreciation class, as renown architects tried to make the audience see the misunderstood treasure in a new light.

Architect Sam Liebman was associate architect on the original project with the world-famous architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the 1967 building. He spoke admiringly about the building's inordinate strength, thanks to its 5,000 supporting concrete blocks. The mortar is of the same strength and material, fully 20 percent higher than what was required.

The concrete skirt and bearing walls make it virtually indestructible, unlike the more current style of steel-framed building, which is neither as durable nor as fireproof. It would be almost impossible, economically, to erect a building of that strength today. The original $6.7 million cost, adjusted for inflation, would cost $77.3 million today.

And the mold that some county officials say has destroyed the building?

"Mold does not grow on clean concrete, only on organic material," Liebman said. "It just needs to be cleaned."

Another architect, Joseph Giovannini, who writes extensively on architecture for The New York Times, said, "How lucky you are to have this masterpiece. It was the best of its time."

The center came perilously close to being razed, especially after Hurricane Irene flooded the building, which remains closed two years later. Even before the hurricane, the county executive, Edward Diana, was pushing hard to demolish the building and build a new one. He has long complained of the center's leaky roofs and spreading mold. Other county residents fond of Goshen's Victoriana found it hard to love the modern building and its array of concrete blocks. Many local residents, if not most, say it's ugly.

The forum, sponsored by the non-profit group Orange County Taxpayers and the National Trust for Historic Presentation World Monuments Fund and held at the Goshen Senior Center, was publicized as bipartisan. And while social media was busy earlier in the week as both lovers and haters of the Paul Rudolph building weighing in, most of the audience of about 100 — whether to save money or an artistic treasure — supported a more "restorative" approach.

Harvey Berg of Blooming Grove, a retired architect who has worked on green buildings and many large buildings in New York City, agreed with the building's potential for rehabilitation, and, referring to the county executive's campaign to build a new center, called out "the deceptive practices that got us to where we are."

The senior center was hung with photos of a similar building at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, also designed by Rudolph, and with extensive renovations that were just completed for $45 million. The renovation of its Carney Library by a Boston group called DesignLAB Architects took about one year to renovate the building, which made its debut to students this week. Its main feature is a lengthy curtain wall that covers and protect the original parts of the structure.

County legislators voted for renovation, as opposed to building new, in February. But Diana edited a report commissioned by the legislature's Physical Services Committee to include the possibility of more extensive demolition of two of the building's three sections. A comprehensive report that will include design features by DesignLAB and more details about the proposed renovation is due by the end of September.

Cost estimates have rather been all over the place — from the $136 million new building Diana originally proposed in 2010, to a scaled-down building estimated to cost $75 million, to, most recently, the renovation estimate of $60 million.

The taxpayers group called even the $60 million estimate inflated. The construction experts they hired say the job might be accomplished for as little as $35 million to $40 million.

Members of the public argued that they too had suffered damage to their homes during recent storms, but had not razed their structures to start anew. They pointed to other historic buildings in Goshen that were successfully restored after hundreds of years of use. Many blamed the center's problems on simple neglect.

Berg showed photos of damage to the building's many rooftops — where pavers had been shoveled into piles, poking holes in the roof membrane and obstructing drains.

"How can they not say they did not know of the problems?" he asked, referring to county officials. He called the building's condition "deliberate sabotage."

If 5,000 concrete blocks cannot withstand water, he said, "I think we'd better contact the folks at Hoover Dam."

Best thing in 100 years

Yes, but is it art?

That's where Giovannini came in. He was introduced as "the person that people go to when they want to know whether a piece of architecture is art."

Giovannini left no doubt. He called the government center "one of America's great buildings, by one of its great architects," and "a rare piece of architecture, not compromised and bravely intact. It is historic and it is art."

He said Rudolph took the design concepts of Frank Lloyd Wright and "built them vertically, in the 'Z' dimension."

He said it was the one thing of historical significance to have happened in Goshen during the past 100 years.

"You need to think of this building differently, like Washington's Headquarters," he said.

Done at the height of Rudolph's career, he said, "the building shows complexity, subjectivity, mystery of height....It gives a lofty public space that gives people dignity and honor. It is inviting, 'sui.' How lucky you are to have this masterpiece."

"Sadly," he said, "it has been the victim of a sustained act of vandalism. It's the best there was at the time, and it's a very big deal."

World Monuments Program Director Frank Sanchis concluded the string of adulation by describing how his group selects buildings, as it did two years ago when it designated the county building a world monument.

"It falls upon the residents of this small community to save it," he said.

Sanchis, along with all the other speakers, warned that restoration will include some demolition, and that the challenge will be to retain those elements that give the building it its distinction.

"The demolition part will have to be very selective and cautious," he said.

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