Neutra’s Visitor Center and the Genius Loci of Gettysburg

by Ted Cleary, ASLA

JULY of 1863: following earlier Confederate victories that spring, Robert E. Lee has pushed northward into Pennsylvania.  His Army of Northern Virginia bumps up against Union troops in the small town of Gettysburg, and skirmishes escalate.  By the early afternoon of July third, two days of intense fighting has built to a climactic showdown, when Lee sends in a 12,000 troop offensive to cut the North’s Army of the Potomac’s flanks in half.  After launching the largest artillery barrage the western hemisphere has ever seen to soften Union defenses, the cannons’ acrid smoke and thunderous noise, heard as far as forty miles away in Harrisburg, ceases from both sides.
 

Believing they’ve exhausted the Northern Army’s artillery power, a mile-wide swath of Confed-erate troops begins its march across a mile of fields to confront the Union line.  Halfway there, they are met by a barrage of Union cannon fire again.  The Confederate ranks are heavily mowed down as they advance, stoically and fatalistically, armed only with their rifles.  Those whose bodies aren’t torn apart by the ferocity of 12-pound iron cannonballs or nearly vaporized by the shrapnel of exploding shells, return musket shots when finally within firing range.  Survivors clamber over a low fieldstone wall shielding Union troops to engage in savage hand-to-hand combat lanced with bayonets or their skulls smashed by the butts of rifles, before it becomes clear that the Confederates have been defeated and retreat.  The bodies of some 50,000 young Americans lay dead or injured, soaking the landscape with their blood shed over three brutal days.

The connection to these fields south of Gettysburg was now burned into the memory of those survivors.  Especially in an age of warfare before airplanes, before any sort of motorized equip-ment, when an army travelled solely on foot (for some Confederates, tenacious but poorly outfit-ted, even barefoot) and for a privileged few officers, by horse, the terrain was an intimate part of the soldier’s experience.  Both sides were keenly aware of two particular features in this other-wise unremarkable landscape, and used them to advantage:  the subtly rolling topography just beyond the Appalachian foothills, and the low Pennsylvania granite stone walls defining farm fields.  General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was in fact a member of the small but elite Corps of Topographical Engineers, charged with mapping the vast western lands of the young nation; he was as aware as anyone of the strategic importance of “taking the hill”.  Little Round Top; Cemetery Ridge; Culp’s Hill; all would have a pivotal role in the success or failure of Union and Confederate troops over those three days.  The ground upon which this tragedy played out had now become a defining chapter in the struggle to keep the young republic intact.
 
NINETY-five years later, when Richard Neutra received word that his and Robert Alexander’s firm had been selected by the National Park Service’s Mission 66 planners to create a visitor center, he soon realized the enormity of the design task.  This commission would be one of those defining moments in an architect’s career, even one as seasoned and accomplished as Neutra’s, in which an exceptional design could transcend its utilitarian role to inspire our “greater selves”.  It should convey the ideals fought and died for on that battlefield among fieldstone and rolling pastures, much as President Lincoln strove to do when he delivered what would become one of the nation’s most inspired speeches from that “hallowed ground, consecrated” by those men themselves.

In contrast to this esoteric goal, the NPS’s basic programmatic requirements were quite straight-forward.  First and foremost, Paul Philippoteaux’s historic cyclorama painting, a curiously late-19th-century form of ‘infotainment’ acquired by the Park Service from private ownership in 1941, needed a secure new home.  Additionally, the NPS had long recognized the need for a central gathering place to accommodate Gettysburg’s ever-expanding crowds; a visitor center which would direct and welcome them in a logical progression rather than the helter-skelter manner in which private tour guides had previously operated, and through educational displays and artifacts “interpret” the history of those watershed three days.  The huge cyclorama painting, at 356 feet in circumference and two stories high, called for a large and simple cylindrical shape.  Both its impressive size and its historical importance dictated that this would be the dominant element of the visitor center, with the interpretive displays, services such as gift shop and restrooms, and the adjunct office space for the park’s administrative staff, subordinate to it.  With the perception perhaps born of his status as an “outsider” from Austria, Neutra reasoned that a memorial highlighting the beginning of the end for the Confederacy might offend a significant part of the country --- particularly as the struggle for racial equality was again heating up in the early 1960s a century after it was supposed to have been resolved --- and thus designed the viewing room for the circular painting upstairs, where it could either be the climax for the park visitor or avoided entirely.    

Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Park Service had given long and deliberate thought to pre-cisely where their eventual visitor center at Gettysburg should be located.  With nearly universal agreement, NPS Director Conrad Wirth approved a site on the edge of woods known as Ziegler’s Grove.  This spot, from a slight rise in the topography, offered a panoramic view, south some 200 yards, over the most significant locations that culminated in Pickett’s Charge that third day.  Most significantly, it was virtually the same vantage point from which Philippoteaux envisioned the battle that had taken place about fifteen years before he put paint to canvas.  With this im-portant decision resolved, the long process of design development, and approval, began.

What emerged from the architect’s drawing table was a quintessentially Neutra solution.  It did, and didn’t, look like a “Neutra building”, because its appearance was not a self-conscious “style” but instead uniquely and primarily derived, form following function as had all of Neutra’s vast body of work, from the most important considerations the architect was always guided by:  the program, the end user, and every bit as importantly, the site and surrounding landscape.  When the NPS had kicked off its Mission 66 program a few years before, they intuitively recognized that modern architecture, with its deliberate sense of timelessness and lack of historicist details, could serve as the perfect foil for the memorable settings of its parks and monuments.  The visitor center at any park, they felt, should not attempt to be some literal interpretation of a vernacular building style, with historicist details distorted and out-of-scale by the many roles it was tasked with to accommodate crowds of visitors; rather, it should fulfill the promise modernists had held for decades, providing an un-self-conscious, socially inspired locus among its more important site; as timeless in style as the landscapes surrounding it. 

Collaboration between architect and clients, particularly when many players are involved, can be a curious thing; oftentimes compromise results in a watered-down final design where all in-spiration and clarity gets lost.  But at other times, as this instance, initial design concepts may evolve from such discussion and emerge stronger.  Early sketches and models show the cyclo-rama drum as the building’s southern end, closest to the battlefield, its mass looming out over the view like the prow of a ship, but written records indicate that the Park Service preferred the drum be reversed so it was more tucked into the tree canopy of Ziegler’s Grove.  A tall and narrow tower, reminiscent of a future addition to Neutra’s Garden Grove Community Church, was wisely removed from the design.  If Goethe’s observation that the essence of beauty is simplicity, what remained was pure modernist beauty:  clear geometries of a large round concrete drum floating above the land, in perfect counterpoint to a long, low, strongly rectilinear and horizontally-emphasized wing sheathed in a rhythm of vertical louvers.  The entire simple composition possessed the magically perfect proportions that Neutra always seemed to achieve.       

At the south end of this rectilinear structure, reaching out toward the High Water Mark, the building terminated in an overscaled ‘spider leg’, a signature Neutra architectural device.  Many times Neutra employed this post and beam detail that served not only as a structural element, but more so as an expressive gesture to reach out into the surrounding landscape and ground the building to it.  Wherever it was applied, the spider leg often created a subtle connection with the site, and here it seemed as though Neutra wanted to subliminally link us from the coolly modern structure to the battlefield itself.

Gently rising ramps were an integral aspect of the building’s design, both internally leading to the cyclorama painting and externally to a wide viewing platform overlooking the battlefield.  They served to subconsciously echo the rolling fields surrounding it, much more so than their utilitarian role of making the visitor center equally accessible to wheelchair-bound visitors, decades before the Federal ADA laws would dictate such design concerns.  As with many other Neutra projects, water was a key element here also:  tranquil sheets of water on three levels, spilling down from the roof to the entrance door area, were intended to subtly direct visitors’ motion as well as set a tone of dignity befitting this site.  The architect felt that an attribute of modern architecture was that it could fade into the landscape. "Our building should play itself into the background, behind a pool reflecting the everlasting sky over all of us — and it will not shout out any novelty or datedness."

The Neutra firm was awarded the contract to oversee actual construction after the design was resolved.  His architectural practice was known for meticulous correspondence, and archived records tell a story of a challenging construction process over the next several years.  The project was hampered by two, often conflicting, circumstances:  the inherent nature of modernist archi-tecture to use unique building materials and methods, forcing contractors to ‘step outside their comfort zone’; at the same time, the NPS’s mandate to choose the lowest bidder.  An optimistic start was tested right from the beginning, when it was discovered that the footings had been dug twenty feet off from where soil testing had determined the building’s placement; the footings thus had to be re-designed, and then the quality of concrete that followed was a repeated source of conflict.  The resultant problems included sliding doors that were never used for their intended noble purpose of opening the speaker’s rostrum to crowds gathered outside on a lawn, one of many excuses used by the cyclorama building’s detractors to finally bulldoze the structure some fifty years after it was dedicated.

Dion Neutra, Neutra Sr.’s son and business partner, served as project architect, managing the three-year process with occasional site visits from the other side of the continent, with Thaddeus Longstreth, a former Neutra apprentice now relocated near Princeton, New Jersey, providing fre-quent weekly site visits.  Of particular interest to the architects was getting the stonemasonry just so.  This aspect of the building’s material palette was an important way Neutra referenced the surrounding terrain on which so many men clashed and died a century before, and records show how the architects fought hard for the craftsmanship of the stonework to turn out just as they envisioned.  Their painstaking specifications included every conceivable aspect, from its source (“Arcure Pennsylvania Sandstone in the tan, brown or buff color range”) to minute details of its pattern and mortar jointing.  An initial delivery of 155 ton of Pennsylvania sandstone ultimately proved unsatisfactory, as did the mason’s first several mock-up panels; eventually a different quarry was able to provide acceptable stone and an old barn was found near Gettysburg that served as the prototype for the stonemasonry.  Nevertheless, project records indicate that Long-streth felt it necessary to continue to closely monitor and guide the work to its last detail.  Other Neutra structures --- the concurrent Garden Grove Church design among several other projects --- laid up their stonework in an unusual way:  vertically oriented, rather than horizontal as it would be found in nature, to emphasize the non-structural aspect of Neutra’s modernist free-floating walls, and simply to celebrate a unique way to display the stone texture.  But here at Gettysburg, Neutra wanted his stonework to be married to the surrounding land, in a delicate balance between grounding his building to its site and contrasting it with the clean and timeless simplicity of his concrete and stainless steel.  His referential details were, as always, subtle:  even the drum’s five supporting stone-clad stretched piers on the northeast side, splayed out from the auditorium doors, are reminiscent of the walls all over the Gettysburg countryside, when piers of a more compact shape could probably have supported the same tributary load.  Nearby boulders remind us of just how much the visitor center ‘grew out of’ its site.  At the Park Service’s urging, some more-literal low fieldstone walls, looking just as they did when Civil War troops used them for cover a century before, were integrated into the surrounding concrete walkways and fieldstone patios.

An architecture as bold as the visitor center, and in a naturalistic setting as simple as the sur-rounding woods and farmfields as at Gettysburg, called for landscape planting that supported, rather than overwhelmed, its visual impact.  Part of Neutra’s sensitivity to site and landscape is attributed to his employment as a young man in Switzerland with noted landscape architect Gus-tav Ammann.  As was often his habit, Neutra provided general guidelines for the visitor center’s landscape plantings (e.g. perennials; evergreen shrubs; height ranges), but the specific planting plans were produced by NPS landscape architect Eugene DeSilets to emphasize naturalistic spe-cies choices in keeping with the surrounding land and the simplicity of the building, including a curving colonnade of two dozen Red Oaks along a walkway.

Few if any written memories exist to tell us if Richard Neutra consciously weighed these site is-sues in his design process, along with the multitude of other considerations that were balanced in the final design.  Perhaps they were simply folded into the subconscious way he approached eve-ry project and site in his matured career.  It would be inaccurate to call his “Shrine to the Nation” at Gettysburg Richard Neutra’s magnum opus, as his entire body of work includes many remark-able and defining projects, but we do know that Neutra was greatly honored to be given this op-portunity, and proud of the result his firm produced.

NOW, in spring of 2013 --- after over a decade of passionate attempts led by the original project architect to save it, including legal wins that ultimately proved ineffective --- Neutra’s Lincoln Memorial at Gettysburg is no more.  Its detractors, who could never accept modernist architec-ture ‘infringing’ on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, have finally won.  The last concrete rub-ble has been hauled away to the landfill and the site has been regraded in a dubious attempt to “return it to its 1863 appearance”, notwithstanding the glaring nearby intrusions of garish fast-food joints and a recent tract home neighborhood erected right over the ground of this same his-toric battle.  We’re left to wonder why the sight of some-1300 Gothic monuments scattered across the battlefield’s landscape is acceptable to Gettysburg’s protectors.  Perhaps this unique location was simply too controversial to ever satisfy both those who honor that particular July a century-and-a-half ago, and those who see modernism, and the noble goals of the Mission 66 project, as an equally-important chapter in the continuum of our nation’s history.   

Ted Cleary, ASLA, is principal of Studio Cleary Landscape Architecture. Ted is in the process of launching the weekly MCM blog on garden design www.modernoutside.com.

The following is one of a number of articles collected by Dion Neutra in his upcoming Ebook Commemorative on the 'Loss of the Gettysburg Cyclorama Center', which was destroyed last March by the same agency that commissioned it. Upload the entire 190 page document just now in final stages of production. Check the Neutra.org website for status.

 

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