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Apr 12, 2015 11:50 AM

Modernist gem or eyesore? NY building again stirs debate

The Associated Press

GOSHEN, N.Y. (AP) From the time it was built in this quaint village 45 years ago, the county building has stirred strong opinions for its modernism-meets-Mayberry look: a geometric jumble of irregularly stacked concrete-and-glass boxes.

While the Orange County Government Center has been hailed by architectural experts as a modernist treasure, many residents have viewed it as just an odd, ugly place to apply for a driver's license.

As crews prepare to renovate and partially demolish the sprawling building in this suburban and rural county 50 miles northwest of Manhattan, local preservationists are fighting in court to halt a project they say will permanently disfigure the landmark.

Many locals have more mixed feelings.

"From the outside, it's a horrible-looking building," said resident Arnie Weintraub.

"It doesn't fit the right look of our village, or town, or area," added Brian Dunlevy, as he worked on a bike at his Joe Fix Its shop. "It's here. Should it be? I don't think so. But it's here."

The building was designed by the late architect Paul Rudolph, a celebrated figure of mid-20th century style that came to be known as brutalism. (The name is not derived from the word "brutal," as many assume, but from the French term for raw concrete.) Though considered a genius, Rudolph hasn't always been appreciated by a public that sees cold-looking concrete instead of elegant interplay between light and space.

The building was closed in September 2011 after it was damaged by the remnants of Hurricane Irene, forcing county operations to other buildings.

But complaints about maintaining the building, completed in 1970, predated the storm: Those big windows letting in light also let in too much cold; the roof which looks like a three-dimensional checkerboard leaks. County executive Steven Neuhaus recalls buckets placed around the building 25 years ago when he applied for his driver's license.

With the threat of demolition looming a few years ago, the World Monuments Fund put it on its 2012 global watch list.

County officials settled on a compromise plan to replace one of the three sections to give the front entrance a more generic, glassy municipal look. The other two sections would be taken down to their concrete skeletons and built back up the shape of the original building, with some functional changes such as a simpler roof line.

"You're going to still look at this building and see Rudolph's touch in it," Neuhaus said.

Critics see it more like fronting St. Patrick's Cathedral with vinyl siding.

It would be "a Frankenstein's monster," New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote this year in urging county lawmakers to block the plan. The National Trust for Historic Preservation described the plan as "drastic."

Preservationists are especially galled because New York City architect Gene Kaufman offered to buy the building, turn it into an artists' center and build a new government building nearby in a deal he said would save the county money. Kaufman said Rudolph's building reflects a time when people had more faith in government. And he believes the architect's reputation will rebound.

"At the time that Michelangelo and Da Vinci were painting there were a lot of other painters who had greater favor among people. It took a while," Kaufman said. "So I think that the notion that today we may not like it, so let's destroy it and no one can have it, ever, is a very sort of selfish kind of opinion because it assumes not only that you're right, but that you'll always be right."

Neuhaus vetoed legislation that would have allowed the sale to Kaufman amid opposition from village officials. Neuhaus and Goshen Mayor Kyle Roddey said it was important to consolidate government agencies in a functional building as soon as possible after many delays. Roddey said the village businesses have been hurting since the building closures.

"People can throw critiques and criticize us from New York and California, but they haven't been in the mom-and-pop shops that are potentially closing down," Roddey said.

There also are locals like Vincent Ferri, who learned to appreciate the different ways light streamed through the Rudolph building's big windows as seasons changed. He is among three plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking a halt the renovation. A judge hearing their arguments Friday set a May 15 due date for papers arguing for and against a preliminary injunction. Meanwhile, no demolition will occur before July.

The county said it will start removing asbestos from the building and seek dismissal of the suit.

Ferri remained optimistic.

"Until the wrecking ball swings," Ferri said, "the building can be saved."


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