Sunday, February 1, 2015


Goshen, N.Y, is a pleasant village of 5,500 souls located 40 miles north of New York City.

It has historical significance.  It was settled in 1714 and was the site of a battle during the American Revolution.  It is home to the oldest harness racing track in the country.  Its county has more than 175 structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including many Greek Revival, Federal, Victorian and Queen Anne buildings that are well over 100 years old.

Here is an example, Goshen's 1841courthouse, built in the Greek Revival style.

A 2012 newspaper article said, "The village center resembles a Currier & Ives etching of a 19th century community, with a park surrounded by churches and columned office buildings."  Locals describe Goshen as a place where young adults go off to school or for work and then return to raise their own families.

So it is a little surprising that peaceful, bucolic, historic Goshen is hosting one of the biggest architectural preservation battles in the United States.  The issue is Brutalism.


Brutalism is a brand of modern architecture that was popular from the 1950s to the 1970s and all but abandoned afterward.  Its origins trace to Europe, where it was first called "brut," which means concrete.  Buildings in the brutal style are not prettified.  They assert their concrete foundations, often in very heavy doses.

The leading American practitioner of Brutalism, Paul Rudolph, designed a building that opened in Goshen in 1967.  People have been fighting about it ever since.

Orange County Government Center

This building, located on the north end of Goshen and fortunately not near the village green, is beloved by fans of Brutalist architecture.  When they speak of its charm, they usually point first to pictures like the one below, showing interesting angles and many windows.

Others, less enthused, point to views of masses of jutting concrete.

By the 1960s, public buildings were no longer being designed in Greek Revival style.  That said, a Brutalist structure may not have been the way to go in a place like Goshen.

Local residents never took to the building and, indeed, have been voicing their displeasure since construction began in 1963.

Over time the functionality of the building also was called into question.  By 1970, three years after the government center opened, the county was placing tarps over roof sections to prevent leaks during rainfalls.

In 2007, the county executive said, "If I took a poll in town, the building would be demolished tomorrow."  He claimed the building had 87 different roofs, all of which leaked.

Following Hurricane Irene in 2011, the building was closed because of leaks and mold in carpets and the ventilation system.  It took five sump pumps to clear out the water.

The government center now sits empty, and county officials are determined to tear it down.

Brutalism and Preservation

Brutalism may be an acquired taste, but it does have its fans, including a number of preservationists.  They have rallied to save the building.

A major Manhattan architecture firm that has worked on other Rudolph buildings has offered to buy the government center for $5 million and repurpose it as -- of course -- an exhibition and live-work space for artists.

The firm also has offered to design a replacement, to be built next door, for $65 million.  This may be a good deal for Orange County, but Goshenites might be leery about a new building designed by acolytes of the guy who designed the current, deeply unpopular structure.

This was reported recently by a New York Times architecture critic who sides heavily (so to speak) with the preservationists.  He acknowledged that Brutalism is not a popular style, then said:

      "But the government center was conceived with lofty social aspirations, making tangible
        Rudolph's concept of energetic governance as a democratic ideal.   It was a beautiful
        notion; and while the architecture may never win any popularity contest, it was beautiful
        too, with its poetry of asymmetric, interweaving volumes."

(To paraphrase:  Suck it up, Philistines.)

His view is not universally shared. Another critic, writing for the dailycaller website, championed the demolition, calling the Orange County Government Center "a cruel architectural crime against humanity."

The question seems to boil down to whether a prominent building of a given period -- even a dated and unpopular period -- must be preserved even if it is dysfunctional and its owners hate it so much that they want to tear it down.

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