True Green Cities / Thoughts about Midcentury Modern in Gettysburg Or…Yes, Another Blog About that Pesky Modern Architecture!

The Neutra Cyclorama at Gettysburg, vacant and deteriorating today, but still standing!

Saving the Real Cyclorama Building

I drive through Gettysburg at least once a month when driving between Buffalo and Washington, DC.  While Gettysburg is one of the most sacred cultural landscapes and words in our nation, it is also the location of one of the hardest fought – and continuing – preservation battles to save a midcentury modern building – Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Building.

Richard Neutra designed the building in 1961 to house the 1883 Cyclorama painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, a circular panorama.  The building was a showpiece of the Mission 66 building program, a $1 Billion effort to improve visitor facilities nationwide in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966.

Sadly, some misinformed National Park Service employees decided,  whether from their own hubris, lack of appreciation for modern architecture or because of their love of Disney, to have this closed, try to demolish it and build a new 120,000 square foot mega-church-like visitor center on a 45-acre intact parcel of the battlefield landscape across the road from the Neutra one. This new one is so banal I can barely even look at the photos I took of it. It contributes to the sprawl that surrounds the battlefield on all its sides and sadly brings the sprawl right into the battlefield. The book store is massive but really just has multiple copies of the same books.  And there isn’t one book or postcard about the Neutra building, which isn’t even located on the Battlefield maps.  I wonder what people who know nothing about this history think as they drive by it on the battlefield driving tour.  Why is that modern building right here at the edge of the battlefield?  And even more important, why is it vacant and deteriorating?

There has been much written on both sides of the battle so I will just direct you to some of those websites.  It is not my purpose in this blog to hash out a story that is better told elsewhere, other than to say, shame on those in the Park Service and other supposed stewards of our history who have left this building and its story to rot.  But demolish a Neutra building?  Really, a Neutra?  Why not Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan and Corbusier then too?

Demolition or Driving Tours?

The rear of the massive new Visitor Center at Gettysburg, which is opposite the Neutra Cyclorama, although neither can be seen from the other.

There are so many things that disturb me at Gettysburg.  I usually prefer to write about the positive in my blogs but my goodness, there is so much wrong here that it is challenging to put the battlefield or the Neutra in any positive light.  The story, as I understand it, is that the NPS needed a larger visitor center and claimed that removing the Neutra building would return sacred land to the battlefield interpretation.  So, yes the Neutra Cyclorama is built on the battlefield.  It was a different time in 1961 and our understanding of cultural landscapes was very nascent.  But it was done 50 years ago so let’s move on.  The landscape they chose to suburbanize for this grandiose visitor center is just as intact a part of the battlefield landscape, or

This Kentucky Fried Chicken, aka KFC, abuts the Gettysburg Battlefield.

was, until it was destroyed for this monstrosity.  So from what I can understand, this visitor center is an even worse impact on the battlefield – it was completed when we all should know better.  And it is SO BIG.  And then to continue the insult, there are a variety of plaques in the ridiculously large parking lot/s that talk about how every effort was made to meet certain LEED criteria, although notice, at least, the project wasn’t LEED certified.

One of the key components of the interpretation and the tour also disturbs me significantly.  The primary way to experience the massive battlefield is to drive your car on a self guided driving tour.  All those cars… you can’t tell me that a building built on the battlefield landscape 50 years ago has more impact on the landscape and the environment than hundreds of cars (probably thousands during the summer) driving around ON the landscape to look at the monuments.  So here’s my question – why is it allowed?  Why don’t we make everyone walk?  Or have a trolley?  Come on people, we all weigh too much. WALK!  Yes, they have a bus, but how many people really take it?  Cars just shouldn’t be allowed, period.  And it’s not just the greenhouse gas emissions, it’s the negative impact on the cultural landscape and viewshed.

Directly adjacent to the Neutra building and the battlefield landscape is a strip of fast food restaurants including a KFC with the biggest darn Face of the Colonel that I have ever seen.  It literally stopped me in my tracks as I was wandering around the Neutra taking photos.  So, the Neutra is worth demolishing but it’s okay to keep the Colonel.  Sigh.

And Who Decides What We Want to See?

What I learned with the historic sites at the National Trust is that interpretation of our history is subjective, what

The Neutra Cyclorama and one of the monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

we want to know and learn changes with generations and every one appreciates different parts of our history in different ways.  I get that some people need or think they need the big bombastic visitor center to tell them what to see and what to think.  I get that a place as important as Gettysburg draws such huge crowds that the visitor experience is big money and directing those crowds can be challenging. But that’s where historians and preservationists come in to play.  We should all know better and be able to creatively address these issues without resorting to the “mall” for everything.

So, what’s the good in this story?  The Neutra is still standing.  A recent judge put a stay on the demolition and is making the Park Service complete more due diligence review.  More and more modernism is being better appreciated and as that happens, we have a better chance to save this great one.  In Houston, which has a host of great modern architecture, people have been standing up for their modernism for a long time. Every modern building that stays in use, or is rehabilitated or is saved from demolition, helps to save the next one.   Please peruse my recent photos of the Neutra on my Facebook page if you’d like to see more.

Update, February 1, 2013:  After 14 years of legal battles the final appellate court ruled that the National Park Service could demolish the building, at a cost of $3.8 million!!  This is one of the most egregious rulings in cultural resources law.  On this day when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, please take a moment to send one last letter to save the Neutra Cyclorama.  

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