Close call for fate of Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center

In the Balance

Close call for fate of Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center

Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center moved a tentative step closer to demolition on April 24 after a subcommittee of the county legislature approved $14.6 million to finance the design of a new $75 million complex. Republican Al Buckbee crossed party lines to vote against the proposal, making the vote a four-to-four tie. Committee chair Michael Pillmeier, also a Republican, cast the deciding vote. The tight tussle hints that plan may not have the two-third majority of the legislature needed to proceed. At press time, a full vote by the legislature was scheduled for May 3.

Throughout April, preservationists fanned out over the county. DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State held three meetings, Rudolph scholar Timothy Rohan gave a lecture in Newburgh, and in Goshen, designLAB delivered a presentation about their Rudolph renovation project at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The building has not been lacking for attention from the mainstream press either. After dedicating front-page coverage to the preservation fight, The New York Times held an online debate under the provocative heading “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?” which included the line describing the Brutalist style as one “which uses raw concrete or other materials to make art galleries look like fallout shelters,” from Anthony M. Daniels, a contributor to the conservative arts journal, The New Criterion.

The Orange County debate essentially pits liberals against conservatives, though Republicans took pains to distance themselves from the role of aesthetic conservatives. “I would never ask to take a building down because of what it looks like,” county executive director Eddie Diana told AN back in March.

Diana attempted to couch his decision to destroy the Brutalist masterwork in conservative financial terms only after his initial $136 million proposal was rejected by the legislature. The new plan costs $75 million. Meanwhile, estimates for renovating the Rudolph building continued to climb, with one estimate reaching $77 million.

Plans for the new county building call for a 175,000-square-foot facility. In a letter to Diana, designLAB’s Robert Miklos noted that the Dartmouth building added 22,000 square feet to a 155,000-square-foot existing building, making a total of 177,000 square feet, but at a cost of $35 million. The Times Herald-Record reported that that number is probably closer to $43 million after design fees and furnishings are factored—still less than Diana’s demolition and replacement proposal.

Many questioned the proposal’s financing, with scrutiny centered on bond arrangements and whether a new building qualifies for financing from FEMA (the building sustained damage in Tropical Storm Irene). Before voting against the proposal in the committee, legislator Myrna Kemnitz told AN, “You can’t use FEMA monies to build new.” Kemnitz, a consistent critic of the project, said that aesthetic argument aside, the finances just don’t add up. “The entire project was put out there by politicians who are willing to go on the premise that people will never check.”