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Orange County Government Center-Goshen-Hurricane Irene-FEMA-Paul Rudolph-Brutalism-NY
This is the abandoned Orange County Government Center. Would you save it? It was built in 1970 and abandoned in 2011. It sits in the town of Goshen, New York, on the outermost fringes of the New York City Metropolitan area. It’s as far out as you can get while still being pulled ever so slightly towards midtown Manhattan, like a comet is pulled towards the sun.

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Orange County had 372,318 people in 2010. There are more today, as young Hasidic families grow the town of Kiryas Joel and Newburgh’s cheap rents attract immigrants. All these people, and others, need license plates for their cars. They need records kept for their deeds, permits for their pistols and legislators to write their laws. They get in trouble or they want to get married quickly, so they end up before a justice of the peace.  In 2011, Hurricane Irene flooded the building and FEMA deemed the place uninhabitable.

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In 2011, Hurricane Irene flooded the building. FEMA deemed the place uninhabitable. The entire government, all those justices, attorneys and clerks, moved into rented rooms. The county executive decided enough was enough. He wanted the entire place demolished–it was an ugly hulk from the ’70s that leaked and never worked right, a Chrysler LeBaron of a building. No one on the legislature objected to the idea of tearing it down, but they balked at the cost of replacing the building. The economy was still in the tank, and no one wanted to stick the taxpayers with a $114 million bill.

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And then the preservationists got wind of it. The building was designed by Paul Rudolph, one of the most influential architects of Brutalism. You know those terrible cement dorms and libraries your college put up in the 1970s and ’80s? The ones everyone said were built to contain student riots, or keep the townies out, or suicides off the roof? They were trying to imitate Rudolph, only they did it badly, and they left their buildings everywhere. So now everyone hates Brutalism, except for die-hard architecture geeks.

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Save the building! The preservationists demanded. Architects drove up from Manhattan to sit in on legislative sessions and suggest that the place be turned into an arts center. Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times architecture critic, wrote a column in January begging the county to save the building. He said the center was “a complex of animated spaces, by turns intimate and grand,” that “mak[e] tangible Rudolph’s concept of energetic governance as a democratic ideal.” The county didn’t care. Kimmelman wrote another column in early March, saying that destroying the building would be “vandalism.” The legislature voted to do nothing to prevent the demolition.

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Brutalism has a power to it–a retro-futurist cool. It’s easy to imagine Don Draper looking out one of the pod windows on the top floor, tapping another cigarette out of the pack, or Sterling Archer downing a Glengoolie in the lobby. Hell, the place still has payphones. People had to walk past each other to get places, folks going to the DMV ran into their elected officials in the halls. Who cares about that now, when you can submit all your forms online then tweet to the president? The building was on the “Endangered” list of the World Monuments Fund, like it was the last grey rhinoceros.

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Don’t worry, the new architects told the county legislature. The new building we put up will be “Modern, yet Timeless.” It will be “Appropriate” in “Cost and Perception,” but also have plenty of “Sensitivity to Rudolph.” Then they showed a rendering of the new building, a glass-and-steel cube. Then they showed the three different kinds of roofing they could use – “GOOD,” “BETTER” or “BEST” and “BEST” came with a “25 YEAR FULL SYSTEM WARRANTY.”

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Now we come to you. Do you think this building is worth saving? Do you think the taxpayers of Orange County should pay the costs of saving it? Maybe you don’t, and that’s okay. But if it was saved, would you visit Goshen? Would you eat in Elsie’s Luncheonette on Main Street, maybe take in the Harness Racing Museum or visit the Motorcyclepedia in Newburgh? The county legislature didn’t listen to the New York Times, but they might listen to you. You can e-mail the Orange County government at ceoffice@orangecountygov.com or check out its Facebook page. Let them know what you would do to save this building.

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