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The Soulless Vandalization of Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center Moves Forward

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Yesterday, legislators in Orange County, New York failed to stave off the partial demolition of Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center. In January, county executive Steven M. Neuhaus vetoed a proposal that would entertain outside bids like Manhattan architect Gene Kaufman's, to purchase, restore, and repurpose the structure, and this was the last chance legislators had to oppose that veto. Kaufman also proposed designing a new government center next door, with a projected budget less than that of the county's current plan to partially demolish and greatly alter it. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman described the county's plan as "vandalism" in his column on Tuesday.

The plan, which Kimmelman summarized as stripping away "much of its distinctive, corrugated concrete and glass exterior and demolish one of its three pavilions, replacing it with a big, soulless glass box," was briefly opposed, according to Mid-Hudson News, by a "last minute effort by some legislators to terminate the contact" with Clark Patterson Lee, the project architect of the county's proposal. Orange County Legislative Chairman Stephen Brescia is quoted as saying "we are moving ahead and we are ready to go. Demolition is going to start and reconstruction."

Photos courtesy Alexandra Lange

Completed in 1972, the building has the same flies-eye facade recognizable in some of Rudolph's residential work. Officials have been considering demolition for over a decade, falling in step with a popular consensus both dismissive of Rudolph's oeuvre, and of neglected brutalist buildings in general. The question of whether to demolish or repurpose was accelerated by its closing, in 2011, because of water damage from Hurricane Irene, which also landed it on World Monuments Fund's global watch list.

Last weekend, the Times Herald-Record agued that "legislators owe it to the people of the county to listen to this plan, to test the assumptions and to compare it to the plan they are in such a hurry to implement." Yesterday, according to the Herald-Record, legislators "didn't even take up the question of overriding County Executive Steve Neuhaus' veto":
Rather, they debated two separate resolutions introduced by Democratic lawmakers to urge Neuhaus to fire design firm Clark Patterson Lee and reject two recent demolition bids that came in at $7.8 million and $7.4 million, each well above Clark Patterson Lee's $3.8 million estimate. The full cost estimate for the project is more than $70 million.Two votes to put Democrats' resolutions on the agenda failed 13-7. "County residents are looking to us right now to stop a runaway train," said Democrat Roseanne Sullivan, to which Republican legislative majority leader Melissa Bonacic replied, "the runaway train is that we are still talking about this issue."

After speaking with former Goshen legislator Rich Baum, Kimmelman laid out some of the building's "values" that seemed to irritate local officials:

The building's atrium, he told me, was where "people interacted with county government... What this meant was that, as the leaders of county government went about their business, there was always the din of people coming in and out and doing their business. Critics said this was impractical. I think it was a purposeful and an inspired idea by Rudolph."

The legislative chamber was designed so that lawmakers sat in rows facing each other, as in Britain's House of Commons, not facing in the same direction. The consequence, Mr. Baum said, was that "as the leader of a disempowered minority, my only real opportunity to effect change was to force my colleagues literally to face arguments against their actions." He added: "The setup of the chamber was constructed to maximize the discomfort and awkwardness of strong disagreements. The building reminded leaders of democratic ideals and fostered tough debate."Seems like yesterday's session could have used a little more of that.

· Bid to slow Government Center renovation stalls [Times Herald-Record]