Below is some correspondence between a local Goshen resident, who dislikes the Paul Rudolph designed Government Center, and Ernst Wagner, the founder of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. (The letterwriter's name has been removed to protect her privacy.)
From: Ernst Wagner
Sent: Monday, July 20, 2015 4:01 PM
Subject: FW: Goshen Government Center
Thank you for writing to me. Your heart-felt letter has made me think hard about the issue, and truly deserves an equally serious & respectful reply.
For all of us, mutually, the Government Center has been a painful and frustrating issue & experience—with equal parts emotion, practical logic, and design & historical perspectives all playing a part in our judgments and actions.
We sincerely don’t want to come off as interfering “city slickers” and “carpetbaggers”, imperiously telling the locals how to live and what to do. We’ve all experienced that kind of meddling from “on high” and nobody ever likes it.
But couldn’t there also be times when the perspective of others is useful in illuminating a particular case? In the case of the Government Center, some truly important preservation organizations have identified it as an architectural work of significance:
- The New York Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) says: “…the OCGC Building Complex is Eligible for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places”
- The World Monuments Fund has placed it on its “Watch List” of endangered buildings of significance
- Docomomo (the committee for the the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement).
- The National Trust for Historic Preservation
These Agencies take a “long view”, and maybe that’s something to take into account. Building (and demolition) has long-term effects—so that historical perspective can offer something useful to us.
We’ve also found that a network of State and Federal laws should have prevented demolition in the case of Goshen—and it has been alleged that a politically strong minority has skirted or even ignored due process, in order to push though demolition. Even if one dislikes the building, one doesn’t want to stand for possibly illegal behavior: they cannot be allowed to just “jump the line” (Our website had much reporting on all that).
Looking at the overall “building stock” of America, the percentage of truly distinguished buildings is relatively small—and it would be tremendously painful if this, one of the best examples of Mid-century Modern civic architecture in the country, would be gone.
By-the-way, I am fascinated by your citation of Brunelleschi—for he (and his building designs) were also controversial in their time. As Brunelleschi’s great biographer, Vasari, shows so movingly, he was known as a man of integrity who cared about every project—small and large—that was put into his hands. That was the Rudolph I knew well for 40 years: he put his passion & care for good design into everything—from the most prominent kinds of buildings like offices, churches, schools and government—to the location of lighting in a children’s playroom.
It is not my personal feelings alone that endorse his importance. Architects like Phillip Johnson said about Rudolph: “He was the Frank Lloyd Wright of his time!” And and that’s a useful point of historic perspective too: Quite a few of Wright’s buildings were torn down---some, sadly, in his lifetime. But today, with the perspective of time, they’re viewed as national treasures, and are valued immensely. Today we do not tear down Wrights!
For an even longer-term perspective, one finds—over-and-over—that that there is often strong controversy and resistance to an artist’s or architect’s work in the near term (during or shortly after their lifetime). The Eiffel Tower—recognized worldwide as THE signature landmark of Paris—was immensely unpopular when proposed, and nearly torn down (it was saved “one minute to midnight”). It took a while for Parisians to come to love what they had---and what would France be like without it? Ditto for Picasso and Gauguin and Cezanne and Matisse and Van Gogh—we love having them on our walls today, yet it took a long while to open our hearts to them.
I can see that this could also be the course-of-history with the Government Center in Goshen—for this so reminds me of something I experienced as a boy:
Perhaps you’re familiar with the chapel in Ronchamp: designed by Le Corbusier, it is now in every architectural and art textbook (that’s no exaggeration), and it regularly shows up on lists of the most important buildings in the world. When I was young I bicycled there, and found that the people of the village hated the building and wanted to tear it down. In fact they would have, but for budget considerations. Yet when I visited 20 years ago, the citizens’ civic pride stood tall: they came to see what a special building they had—and that was sweetened by ongoing tourism to see the building, bringing a notable boost to the local economy.
It’s also hard to like something that looks “tired and worn”—but for 20-30 years the building was brutalized by non- maintenance. Because the village officials—the ones that came after the city leaders who commissioned it—did not ‘get’ the building. Paul Rudolph brought out, through form & space, what the local leaders defined—he translated their vision into a civic center. He “delivered”—yet it is hard to see that when a building has been abused through neglect. One could no more see how fine a building it is—after years of poor care—than if one encountered a fine home that was shabby because it was uncared for.
I also appreciate your criticism of the flat roofs. The truth is that the seeming illogic of flat roofs has been a way of “indicting” modern buildings for a long time. Yet flat roofs—maintained properly, like one would and should do with any kind of design—can work well, and are used successfully in all kinds of buildings in the North East. Besides: they’re never really 100% flat: they’re angled enough to provide proper drainage, and handle snow fine—but they work well, just like our own homes and bodies, only when given proper care.
The town fathers of Goshen in the Sixties selected Paul Rudolph as the architect. He was known as one of outstanding talents at that time; it now seems that the purposeful mis-maintenance has made the building un-likeable. Ah well, this is a well-known phenomenon : One generation celebrates; the next one condemns; and hopefully the artwork of building lasts long enough to find a home in a broad conception what’s worthy in life. Do you remember Ada Louise Huxtable—the Times’ long (and long loved) architecture critic—she wrote: “…we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”
Paul Rudolph’s most famous building is the Art & Architecture building at Yale—which appeared on a US Postage Stamp, and has been rededicated as “Rudolph Hall”. But it too had been allowed to “slide” into being a badly maintained wreck, and disliked by its users. At one point, it even might have been torn down (but that would have been too expensive). The situation is so similar to Goshen: while it was in rotten shape, it was hated—But cleaned up and renovated it became a shining and attractive jewel! And that was done at a fraction of the cost of replacing it—same as would be at Goshen!
It’s always hard to envision the results of a renovation. Yet after renewal, the Yale the building turned from an “ugly duckling into a beautiful swan,” celebrated by everyone . And that cost so much less to do than new construction.
One idea I’d like to offer: Ring the area with fast-growing trees. Everyone loves trees—and they’d be aesthetically soothing for both “lovers” and “dislikers” of the building.
Lastly, you might want to take a look at the collection of writings about Goshen on our website:
and find out about the historical & legal aspects of the current government’s actions. Also, I have there an essay on which we worked very hard:
“A Landmark in Peril”.
Thank you, again, for speaking your mind about this.
It has made me look deeply into our reasons for wanting to save the building—and also made me try harder to communicate why we believe that this is a building of serious merit, well worth saving.
PAUL RUDOLPH HERITAGE FOUNDATION
246 East 58th Street
New York, NY 10022
T: (212) 371-0336
F: (212) 371-0335