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March 23, 2010
by Carl Yost

Event: At Risk! The John W. Chorley Elementary School, Middletown, NY
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.11.10
Speakers: Carl Abbott, FAIA — Carl Abbott FAIA Architects/Planners; Steven Forman, AIA — Senior Associate, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects
Introduction: Sean Khorsandi — Co-Chair, Paul Rudolph Foundation
Moderator: Fred Bernstein — Architecture Critic
Organizers: Center for Architecture in partnership with the Paul Rudolph Foundation; Preservation League of New York; World Monuments Fund
Sponsors: Modernism at Risk is sponsored by Knoll, Inc.

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John W. Chorley Elementary School.

©Andrei Halwell

“While there were several architects in the 1970s known as paper architects, Paul [Rudolph] is becoming one by default as his buildings are being removed,” warned Sean Khorsandi, co-chair of the Paul Rudolph Foundation. Calling attention to one of 13 threatened (or recently demolished) Rudolph projects, the John W. Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, NY, could be razed next year to make way for a parking lot and new school building. To identify preservation strategies, panelists drew on lessons learned from attempts to save other Rudolph buildings, most notably Riverview High School in Sarasota, FL (demolished 2009), and the Yale University Art and Architecture Building (restored in 2009 by Gwathmey Siegel to wide acclaim).

Khorsandi began by describing the architecture of the school: four open-plan classroom zones around a central circulation spine; gently terraced floor levels hug the landscape; and roof trusses and clerestory windows flood the interior with daylight. The open plan makes the school adaptable to almost any use, Khorsandi noted, and needlessly destroying the building would not only erase part of Middletown’s cultural heritage, but entail environmental costs as well.

Carl Abbott, FAIA, of Carl Abbott FAIA + Associate Architect/Planners, who helped lead the attempt to save Riverview High School in Sarasota, FL, showed photographs of Riverview’s deterioration and the alterations that ruined the original architectural concept. These misguided changes — Abbott called them “abortions” — prevented Sarasotans from understanding Riverview’s value, he said: “A big chunk of this is awareness of people realizing the masterpiece that they have in their community.” Though his team solicited support from famous architects, he said this strategy backfired: “The school board people were not looking at name recognition for the building — they wanted us to show them why it was a good building.”

On the positive side, Steven Forman, AIA, a senior associate at Gwathmey Siegel, described his experience as a senior architect restoring the Art and Architecture Building at Yale. Despite abundant technical challenges, the project was a success, he said, “because the money was there, the will was there, the client was there, the construction manager was there. They ‘bought in’ as partners in the whole construction process. In 30 years of building, I’ve never had that experience.”

Abbott simplified the checklist for successful preservation even further: “It’s awareness, it’s time, and it’s money.”

During the Q&A, an audience member pointedly asked whether people even like the Chorley school. Abbott acknowledged that Rudolph could make “demanding” and “intense” architecture, but the question was ultimately put to rest by Fred Isseks, a Middletown high school teacher in attendance: he estimated that 90% of his students love the building. Some of those students were in the audience, and one spoke passionately about her appreciation for the Chorley School.

Positive testimonies such as these, coming from members of the local community, are crucial, said moderator Fred Bernstein. “Buildings will be saved because people come to like them, not because architects say they’re important.”

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