Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander’s Cyclorama Building (1959 - 1962) remains significant both because of its built form, as well as its connection with the renowned post-World War II public program, Mission 66. Unfortunately, its location within Gettysburg National Park has placed it in the line of fire, conflicting with the National Park Service’s 1999 decision “to rehabilitate the North Cemetery Ridge to its historic 1863 and commemorative-era appearance.”
It was in that 1999 General Management Report that the NPS approved demolition of Neutra’s Cyclorama as a means of clearing the landscape of all “modern intrusion.” Only a year before, the National Register for Historic Places determined Neutra’s work eligible for listing acknowledging its significance as a major work of a modern architect. Because of the efforts of the Recent Past Network, Christine Madrid French, and Dion Neutra (Richard Neutra’s oldest son who participated in the design and construction of the building), demolition was delayed through a U.S. District Court ruling that stated the NPS had not fully complied with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The NPS needed to complete a “site-specific environmental analysis” before it could proceed.
Two weeks ago, the NPS published its Final Disposition of the Gettysburg Cyclorama Building: Environmental Assessment and has nearly completed the process necessary in order to proceed with the building’s destruction. Within this Environmental Assessment, the NPS evaluated three alternatives, Alternative A: No-action, Alternative B: Demolition, and Alternative C: Relocation. The NPS then concluded that its preferred alternative would be Alternative B: Demolition because it further supports the Park’s 1999 project plan for the restoration of the North Cemetery Ridge.
The movement to demolish the Gettysburg Cyclorama presents an interesting question pertinent to many historic sites across the country: how do you document and preserve the historic movements of people? Many historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg to be the turning point of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee’s only major engagement with Union forces in Northern territory. Whether Gettysburg is the War’s most important battle could be debated, but what is not in question is that it is the site of over 51,000 dead and wounded over the days of July 1-3, 1863, making it the bloodiest battle to ever occur on American soil.
How do you convey the magnitude of the death and destruction that occurred, in addition to the importance of martial maneuvers that characterize this battle as one of the Civil War’s most significant? For the soldiers who fought there, their method of preserving their own battle movements was to construct monuments dedicated to themselves as groups of soldiers and as individuals. They very literally transcribed their own memories and legacy onto the land upon which they fought. These monuments are strewn throughout the battlefield and are illustrative of who was where and when. There are over 1,700 monuments to both Northern and Southern forces erected throughout the park’s 5,989 acres, only the beginning of the history of intrusions upon the landscape that came to form the coordinated commemoration to the events at Gettysburg.
In its 40th year, the National Park Service advocated for education as a means of relaying the historic significance of sites. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a nationwide program to expand park facilities in order to accommodate a sudden increase in visitor traffic. The program was planned to conclude on the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966 and, therefore, became known as Mission 66. By the end of the program, the park had constructed 584 bathrooms, 221 administration buildings, 36 service buildings,1,239 employee housing units, and 100 visitor centers. These new visitor centers would be the crowning achievement of the Mission 66 program of which Neutra and Alexander’s Cyclorama is its star. The architects designed their Cyclorama in three parts, made-up of a circular drum, an adjoining fan-shaped wing, and a 200-foot long rectilinear two-story structure. It is constructed primarily of concrete with facing in found fieldstone and glass.
The National Park Service required a unique programmatic function for the visitor center at Gettysburg in that it needed to house Paul Philippoteux’s Cyclorama. The parabolic shaped painting is a 360-degree depiction of Pickett's July 3rd charge, a Confederate infantry assault upon the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. The failure of Confederate forces to break through the Union line ended the battle and secured Union victory. The viewer stands on a platform in the center, encircled by Philippoteux’s life-sized vision of Pickett’s charge further enhanced by a landscaped foreground that created a three-dimensional effect. Cycloramas were a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th-century, a means of immersing the viewer into the drama of an event on an epic scale.
The park’s decision to site the Cyclorama Building on the North Cemetery Ridge evolved both out of the park’s commemorative history as well as Neutra and Alexander’s architectural design relating building, painting, and landscape. Early park designs connected the North Cemetery Ridge to the Soldier’s National Cemetery via a pedestrian walkway. The walkway also directed visitors to a steel observation tower (one of five) located atop North Cemetery Ridge where the visitor could view the landscape over which Pickett and his men famously charged. Neutra and Alexander incorporated this commemorative history into their design by constructing a viewing platform from which the visitor could experience the battlefield uninterrupted.Thus, the visitor could directly relate the building and the painting housed within to the site upon which this important battle maneuver actually occurred. The placing of Neutra’s Cyclorama was entirely purposeful as well as essential to the history and character of the building. In 2008, the cyclorama painting was moved to the current Gettysburg Museum and visitor center, effectively destroying the Cyclorama’s symbiotic relationship with its landscape.
Mission 66 prescribed its visitor centers, like the Cyclorama, to be designed in modern vocabulary in order to clearly differentiate it as a non-historical structure. In direct opposition of this 1956 directive, the NPS now advocates for a form of historical purism that is, in truth, inauthentic since it is a forced recreation of a North Cemetery Ridge. In its Environmental Assessment, the NPS repeatedly calls the Cyclorama building “a modern intrusion on the North Cemetery Ridge landscape.” What the NPS neglects to add is that this land has not resembled its “historic 1863 and commemorative-era appearance” for over fifty years and to demolish a significant historic structure to achieve this goal would be in itself an aggressive “modern intrusion,” an erasure of something meaningful.
The National Park Service’s Environment Assessment of the Neutra and Alexander’s Cyclorama Building is posted on the park planning website: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/cycloramaea. It is a 221 page document based on a predetermined outcome, the demolition of the Cyclorama. The NPS had already dismissed the most reasonable proposal, the restoration and repurpose of the building for new use, on the grounds that the “NPS has no continued need for the use of the building.” This decision was made despite several outstanding proposals for a new interactive map room and the reopening of the observation platform that offers the visitor an outstanding 360-degree view of the battlefield.
The continued preservation of the Gettysburg battlefield as a historic site is undisputed; however, what is in question is the NPS’ ambition to create a visitor experience based on an overdone or Disney-esque version of the Gettysburg landscape. Instead of managing these conflicting layers of history, the history of the battle with the history of the site as a national park, the NPS plans to edit out everything that clashes with its 1999 planned presentation. The unceremonious demolition of the Cyclorama is truly a missed opportunity for the National Park Service to instigate a meaningful discussion about the interpretation of war, the relationship of building and landscape, and the significance of later additions.
The opportunity for the public to submit comments on the Environmental Assessment ends September 21, 2012. For more information on the Cyclorama and Gettysburg National Park, visit http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm
[All quotations unless otherwise noted are from the Final Disposition of the Gettysburg Cyclorama Building: Environmental Assessment]