State blocks government center renovation

Planned design would compromise historic building, state says, as Orange County casts around for alternatives

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  • Several legislators chuckled as Phil Clark of Clark Patterson gave his explanation. (Photo by Edie Johnson)

  • This photo of the Orange County Government Center was taken while still under construction in the 1960s by Herb Johnson, the father of Chronicle reporter Edie Johnson.

  • This photo of the Orange County Government Center was taken while still under construction in the 1960s by Herb Johnson, the father of Chronicle reporter Edie Johnson.

  • This photo of the Orange County Government Center was taken while still under construction in the 1960s by Herb Johnson, the father of Chronicle reporter Edie Johnson.

Architect wants to buy Rudolph building

New York City architect Gene Kaufman told county officials he’s interested in buying the government center and putting artists’ studios in there. And the county says he has a chance.
County Executive Steve Neuhaus’ office said Neuhaus has met with Kaufman twice, and that Kaufman and other potential buyers are welcome to submit proposals.
In a press release this week, Neuhaus says he’s met with both Democrats and Republicans, and that “there is considerable interest in selling the building.”
In that same release, he said the architectural firm Clark Patterson will need at least six months to a year to produce a new design that still may not pass muster with the state office of historic preservation.
If the government center is sold, a new county building might be built on land available behind the existing one.
Kaufman has an extensive portfolio of projects in New York City, including the restoration and adaptive reuse of aging skyscrapers ranging from office buildings to houses to hotels. His construction portfolio includes $500 millions’ worth of projects.
His architectural firm, Gene Kaufman, Architect, P.C., includes a group of 30 architects with a range of expertise. It was established in 1989. The firm’s completed projects include a 24-story dormitory planned for Pace University, and, only three blocks from the World Trade Center, the completed 50-story Holiday Inn, which is supposed to be the tallest Holiday Inn in North America. For more about the firm visit

By Edie Johnson

— It's back to the drawing board for the Orange County Government Center — after years of tortuous debate had finally produced a design legislators could agree on, and after the county shelled out more than $10 million in fees.

That's because the state historic preservation office has so many objections to the much-wrangled-over design, it may have to be shelved. Legislators, calling this development "a bombshell," later agreed to withhold money for the planned renovation of three other county buildings in Goshen.

"Some very well-financed and passionate conservation groups may have convinced them during the written public comment period," said Legislative Chair Steve Brescia.

Because the county never registered the building as historic, it did not expect to be held to historic preservation standards when renovating the building. But the state says the building will be subject to preservation standards because it was designed by Paul Rudolph, one of the most eminent American architects of the 20th century, and because it is on the World Monuments list.

More than $3 million expected from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair storm damage depends on getting approval from the state. The project was expected to cost $74 million.

Clark Patterson, the firm contracted to do the work, was on the block. Legislator after legislator asked its architects: How on earth could this happen?

Legislators peppered them with questions: How many buildings have you built before? What kind of experience do you have? One said the county should determine who was responsible and "fire them!"

The architects said they'd met several times with the state historic preservation office, which gave impression they were "on board."

Phil Clark of Clark Patterson said he was as stunned as the legislators were when state representatives came to Orange County last month for a long meeting with county officials.

"It was soon clear that they were not here to select paint colors," Clark said. "When we started this, there was government paralysis. We came to the dance late."

Clark took issue with the state's complaint that the planned addition obscured the Rudolph front façade.

"The same thing could be said about the trees," said Clark.

Entire design criticized

The government center closed in August 2011, after it was flooded by Hurricane Irene. Then-county Executive Edward Diana said at the time that the building was beyond repair. For a long while before the hurricane, Diana had been pushing to get the building razed and a new center built in its place. But after a legislative investigation into how the executive office was managing the center, legislators overwhelmingly agreed to renovate and not rebuild. They then shifted their plans, ultimately agreeing to some demolition and some new construction.

Three architectural and engineering firms have since Irene labored to come up with a design that would retain aspects of the Rudolph building while patching up storm damage.

But the agreed-upon design by Clark Patterson does neither, say the state preservation office and FEMA. They criticized the design in all its aspects.

The state says Clark Patterson's plan would compromise the Rudolph design, reserving its greatest objection to the front addition.

The state further says the design does not adequately address the mold resulting from the building's many leaky rooftops. The planned fix will not protect the county from lawsuits over health concerns, according to the state.

To make matters worse, the state says the exterior stone block façade might retain residual mold, but ruled out replacing the questionable stone even with exact replica stone because it would compromise the building's architectural essence.

Weighing the options

Trying to get a handle on the situation, Phil Clark presented three options to legislators:

Redo the design, eliminating the front addition and putting it to the back.

Erect an entirely new government center, and demolish or sell the current one.

Continue to rent office space while considering alternatives.

"We could probably get away with moving the front addition to the back, but the issue about the walls is probably a deal breaker," Clark said.

County Executive Steve Neuhaus addressed the legislature from the back of the room. "At this time all options are on the table," he said.

He said later that private potential buyers are interested in the building (see related story).

Judge Alan Scheinkman said the planned renovation of three additional county buildings in Goshen might now be delayed. He said legislators needed to understand how the latest development could affect the court system, which has had to make do with temporary arrangements, like waiting rooms converted into courtrooms.

"It's a constitutional and legal obligation to provide safe space for us," he said.

Neuhaus said if that didn't happen within a reasonable time, the courts could withhold sales taxes.

Later in the session, legislators did put funding for the courthouse renovation on hold. They said they will try to pull the courthouse from the bonding for the ancillary buildings. They will reconsider the courthouse as a standalone project when they meet again on July 2.

The Physical Services Committee plans to discuss the fate of county buildings in need of renovation at 3 p.m. on Friday, June 13, at the Emergency Services Center (Classroom #2), 22 Wells Farm Rd., Goshen. The meeting is open to the public.

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