Future of the Orange County Government Center


For some who are unfamiliar with the issue, or who have not yet delved deeper, Orange County has plans to "raze" the government center and replace it with a new one. (Click here to see story). Many of us have been to the center for one reason or another; one of the common complaints is that it is an "eyesore." And of course there is the issue of a building that has become run-down with leaky ceilings and broken door handles, a roof in disrepair, steps that are crumbling, poor lighting, inadequate handicapped accessibility, a building that is poorly insulated and conservationally behind the times.

Ed Diana, County Executive, is behind the idea of a new government center and laid forth his presentation (Click here to see presentation). On Oct. 7 a bond resolution for $200,000 passed the legislature authorizing preparation of plans for a new county building. The proposed new building will be $114.4 M  based on a design concept;  this proposal states that the Rudolph center and other office buildings will take $72.5 M to renovate.

Nancy Hull Kearing, a visual artist living in the County, is against the construction of a new center, and has been organizing her resources, putting forth a position against the demolition of the Orange County Government Center, believing that it is a County Landmark that needs to be preserved. Her perspective is as follows:

" The Government Center in Goshen gives us so much to celebrate and admire. Paul Rudolph, a famous architect of first importance designed  the building  in the Modernist style in the 1960’s. We ought to be proud to show it off along with other examples of grand architecture  representing a mix of many different historical periods in Orange County.

I’m struck by how well the County building fits in,  despite differences in shape and material, with the existing architecture  in terms of scale and articulated, massed forms that express the various functions that take place inside. Look at the dormer windows in the historic buildings across Main Street  and think of them as antecedent to the windows in the County building. Built in our time, it does not try to imitate another period, but is reminiscent in character of the good old rough, strong mid-19th century architecture in Orange County.

Although a large office building, the County building respects the traditional scale of the street. Main Street remains broad, ceremonial and elegant because the building is set back and is perfectly suited to the site.

The interior spaces located  on different levels make movement between areas interesting. The  interior feels more spacious and less confining than the standard linear office arrangement. Light enters the building in interesting ways. Rough, textured walls contrast with geometric volumes in the best 20th century Modernist tradition. Those rough concrete walls don’t require painting, nor does the exterior which is  likely  a huge budget saving. Concrete is the least expensive of permanent materials and is probably the most expensive to take down,  a consideration in replacing the structure. Paul Rudolph designed the building to be added to. He understood that more space would be needed later on. We don’t need to replace the Center with a new glass and steel monstrosity. Using the latest technology, the existing structure can be made to serve our needs today.

The building has some problems. It is 40 years old and needs renovation and to be brought up to the sustainability standards we expect today. The leaks can be stopped if the County really wants to fix them.

Technology has changed and these issues can be corrected when the job is done properly. With some repairs and landscaping the Government Center could be a show place for the county that people want to come to see. It does have a place in the history of Orange County.

The Orange County Government Center is an important landmark by a famous architect. It is a rare and thoughtfully designed example of the Modernist period in American architecture and unique in Orange County. It should be celebrated and restored, not replaced.

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic from the New Yorker magazine replied to Nancy's concerns. Drawing on Rudolph's significance from that standpoint, he states: "It's not surprising that the opposition has been emboldened by a history of poor maintenance, which so often sets into motion a kind of vicious cycle, in which the building gets neglected, which leads more people to give up on it, which leads to more neglect, etc. etc. Reversing that kind of cycle is tough, especially when, like Rudolph's building, there is not much that is easy or soft and cuddly about it, and the cycles of fashion and taste aren't running in its favor.

But that makes your work all the more urgent. I hope you can get Robert Stern to explain the unusual history of the Rudolph building at Yale, which fell into such disfavor there was consideration of tearing it down, and now has been magnificently restored and even renamed in Rudolph's honor. You might also want to do some research on the complicated history of the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, by Frank Lloyd Wright, which I think has also had periods of major neglect and disfavor by the community, but which, thankfully, has been saved.

My new book "Why Architecture Matters" has a chapter entitled "Buildings and Time" that talks about cycles of taste, and about the importance of preservation at those difficult times when buildings are out of fashion.  Perhaps it might provide some helpful arguments. To those who want to learn more about the work of Paul Rudolph, the following video provides a look at his significance.

Dr. Richard Hull, Warwick's Town Historian and Professor of History and Civilization at NYU, takes the perspective of saving the building from a historical viewpoint, writing Leigh Ivey of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Hull asserts that the building needs to be saved and preserved based on the vital role historic buildings play in giving one a sense of identity and connection to their history. The mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is to prevent historic buildings and neighborhoods from being torn down or allowed to deteriorate.  When that happens, "a part of our past disappears forever. We lose history that helps us know who we are, and we lose opportunities to live and work in the kinds of interesting and attractive surroundings that older buildings can provide."


Robert A. Fromaget, who has a background in business Strategies and Budgets with IBM and who was an organizational consultant, is continuing to look at the economic perspective of the issue, bringing to light the crippling debt which it may incur upon Orange County Taxpayers.

In a letter to legislators, some local officials and the Democrat County Chairpersons, he writes about some of his concerns, pointing to County debt from 2006 to 2009. The two components that were discussed were government indebtedness and the exploding Post Retirement Benefits, costs that due to the reporting have been hidden for some time from the taxpayers. (Click here to view government documents)



He writes: "I am sending this to you because I think you are in a position to communicate it to the people you represent in your districts. I am concerned after seeing the CBS Show 60 minutes this weekend.  60 Minutes had a segment concerning a number of issues that I have previously presented to you, including Post retirement benefits (OPEB) and debt burden liabilities that the taxpayers of New York are responsible for. (To view episode, click here).  I am only providing you with the County level costs for these two liabilities and not the Federal, State, Town and Village costs.  Also the data is only through 2008 since that is the only data that the county has made available to the public."

Another concern he has is that the County has not made available the Financial Statement for 2010. He writes, "The opening paragraph of the county’s web page states that the Official Statement contains the County’s financial statements, the projected use of the proceeds of the bond sale, and other facts deemed necessary to enable prospective investors to deem the creditworthiness of the County. This supports my concern that the reason for their delay is to conceal any impact on the County’s credit worthiness and thus their bond rating.

As the county presents more and more debt packages for your approval in the coming years and you approve them how can you possibly understand what it means to the taxpayers of this county?  I again ask that you demand this county executive produce the document for 2010 before any more decisions are made concerning capital projects and more debt for the taxpayers.

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For another article about this issue, click here.

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