Commission brief: The Gettysburg Cyclorama and Visitor Center was the perhaps the most prominent project of the 1956-1966 Mission 66 National Park Service project, approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in January 1956. The new visitor centers constructed under the Mission 66 philosophy were typically constructed directly on top of key park features and designed in Modern vocabulary—to distinguish from earlier NPS styles—and featured an array of interpretative educational material and displays for visitors.
The Cyclorama Building had the dual purpose of housing the decaying 1884 Paul Philippoteux Cyclorama painting depicting the July 3rd, 1863 Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, and of serving as the emblematic building of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 building program, given importance of historical site. There is no definitive correspondence indicating when Neutra was attached to the Gettysburg visitor center project, but according to later accounts, it appears that his firm had at least been informally engaged by 1957.
Design brief: The building’s program reflected Mission 66 National Park Service visitor center philosophy, with the additional program requirement of housing the Cyclorama painting. The original NPS design from before Neutra and Alexander were engaged, was for a drum-shaped building with an observation platform on top. The original design submitted by Neutra and Alexander featured a nine-story observation tower at the south end of the building. Neutra’s original vision of the building as a shrine to Abraham Lincoln and to the ideals of the Gettysburg Address largely dissipated during the design process, though the words “…shall not perish from the earth” (from the Gettysburg Address) are inscribed within the exhibition space of the drum.
Building/construction: The building was constructed from 1959 to 1962.
Remarks: In April 1995, the National Park Service (NPS) requested consultation with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) on a draft plan for the Gettysburg National Military Park, which proposed demolition of the Cyclorama building. “In December 1995, the NPS prepared a Determination of Eligibility for the Cyclorama Building, in accordance with National Register Bulletin #22, ‘Guidelines for Evaluating and Nominating Properties That Have Achieved Significance Within The Last Fifty Years.’ Based upon its evaluation of Criteria Consideration G, the NPS determined that the building had not achieved historic architectural significance since its design in 1958, and had not received scholarly recognition. On May 26, 1996, the Pennsylvania SHPO concurred with the NPS that the Cyclorama Building was not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.” At the request of the Society of Architectural Historians, on September 24, 1998 the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places reversed those findings, determining that the Cyclorama Building was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A and criterion C. Meanwhile, in May 1998, the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) issued a report on the Gettysburg National Military Park titled “A Problem of Common Ground.” The report recommended the demolition of the Neutra Cyclorama while acknowledging its significance as a major work of modernist architecture and as a key building in the NPS’s 1956-1966 Mission 66 visitor center building project. In November 1998, a general management plan for Gettysburg National Military Park was issued under Superintendent John Latschar, calling for the restoration of the 1863 battlefield and removal of all NPS buildings from the site. In January 1999, ACHP Section 106 review, required by law for interventions on National Register-eligible buildings and sites, determined that the demolition of the Neutra Cyclorama “would result in a decided beneficial impact to the historic landscapes of the Union battle lines of July 2 and July 3, 1863,” calling for a new visitor center and museum to be constructed of the battlefield. In 2000, the NPS and National Parks Advisory Board rejected application for designation of site as a National Historic Landmark submitted by the Society of Architectural Historians in 1999. SAH appealed the ruling in 2004. The Cyclorama is slated for demolition at an unspecified date.
The Cyclorama Building is three part-building constructed primarily of concrete, with facing in stone and glass, and aluminum window louvers. The three parts of the building are the drum, constructed of steel frame and reinforce concrete, which was designed to house the Cyclorama painting and related exhibits; an intermediate, fan-shape wing that joins the drum, which houses an auditorium and circulation space; and the nearly 200-foot long rectilinear two-story reinforced concrete wing, which houses two lobbies, visitor center services and National Park Service offices. The building runs on a north-south axis, with the drum located at the north end. The drum is a two-part vertical composition. The main section of the drum, which housed the Cyclorama painting, is a white 41-foot-high, poured-in-place reinforced concrete cylinder with a diameter of almost 125 feet, whose exterior is articulated by shallow vertical ribs running the entire circumference. Below the drum lie thirteen concrete piers faced in ashlar fieldstone. The rectilinear wing, oriented along the north-south axis of the building, is faced in glass and fieldstone at the base (a reference, perhaps to both the old mode of rustic NPS buildings and local Pennsylvania tradition) and features 15-foot-high vertical aluminum louvers along the east elevation. A reinforced concrete ramp, supported by three thin rectangular concrete piers, runs the length of the west side of the visitor-office wing and allows access to the rooftop observation deck, which formerly featured a reflecting pool running the entire length of the east side of the wing. The south elevation of the building is faced with ashlar fieldstone, from which projects a one-story spiderleg that extends over the roof to form the wall of the observation decks on top of the building. The Cyclorama has two entrances, both located on the north side of the rectilinear office wing, on the east and west sides. The lobby is finished in terrazzo floors and unfinished concrete walls and features two-story concrete columns project from the floor to the two-story-high ceiling. A corridor leads northward to the fan-shaped auditorium wing, where, from the first story, circulation opens to the south end of the drum. From the first floor, a winding central ramp spirals upward along a central cylinder up to the top of the drum, which held the Cyclorama, and allowed an uninterrupted 360 degree view of the 1884 painting.
Name of surrounding area: Gettysburg National Military Park.
Visual relations: The building sits atop Ziegler’s Grove, nearby the site on the battlefield where Pickett’s Charge, the event depicted in the 1884 Cyclorama painting, took place on 3 July, 1863. The site is located across Taneytown Road from the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in November 1863. The observation platform on top of the building allows an uninterrupted view over the entire Gettysburg battlefield to the east, south and west. Functional relations:The removal of the Cyclorama painting from the Cyclorama Building has effectively severed the referent value of the Neutra building: where one was supposed to view the painting in the context of the grounds it depicted, that meaning is now absent.
Completed situation: The building sits just south of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and on the north tip of the Gettysburg battlefield. The Cyclorama Building lies just south of the Rosensteel Building, a privately built structure that has served as the park’s visitor center since 1974, and across Taneytown Road from the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where the dead from the battle are buried and where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.Original situation or character of site: The site is located within Gettysburg National Military Park, which comprises the site of the Union victory against the Confederate military in the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 1-3 July, 1863 and was one of the most pivotal and bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The park site was landscaped and preserved by the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association from 1863 until 1895, when the War Department took control of the site. The National Park Service assumed control of the site in 1933 under executive order.
The Cyclorama Building’s primary technical significance is as the key building in the U.S. National Park Service’s Mission 66 project. As such, it stands not as a singular achievement of Modern Movement building construction or use of materials, but as the National Park Service’ s emblem of Mission 66 style in its embrace of undisguised Modern construction materials (reinforced concrete, sheet glass, aluminum in the case of the Cyclorama Building), far different from the 1930s NPS Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) buildings, which were constructed in a rustic style.
The social significance of the Cyclorama is twofold: it is the exemplary building of the U.S. National Park Service’s 1956-1966 Mission 66 visitor center building project and a unique post-World War II and Cold War attempt by Neutra to make contemporary visitors face both the legacy of brutality of armed conflict at Gettysburg and worldwide and an alternate vision of peace and human freedom offered by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. In the rejected application for designation of the Cyclorama Building as a National Historic Landmark, architectural historians Richard Longstreth and Christine Madrid French placed the building as the most significant of the Mission 66 visitor center project: The Cyclorama Building was one of the largest and most ambitious of the new visitor facilities constructed as part of the Mission 66 program. Neutra's reputation appears to have been the central factor in the decision by Park Service officials to secure him for the job … [but] Park Service officials to break from their prevailing practices on this one occasion and commission a famous architect whose offices lay across the continent unless they held the express aim of creating an exceptional building, one that would stand as the flagship of the program. In retrospect, too, only a few other Mission 66 projects such as that for the Wright Brothers Memorial possess attributes that approach the extraordinary ones of the Cyclorama Building. The other social effect of the Neutra’s Cyclorama Building is more subtle, and must be understood in the context of the building as a display case for the Philippoteaux Cyclorama painting and as a viewing platform for the Gettysburg Battlefield. The future NPS plan for the site envisions the battlefield as a restored (though in fact conjectural) landscape in which the space of the battle—the military action—can be imagined, rather than Neutra’s more reflective vision, which asked the contemporary visitor to reflect back on the site through the lens of future history.
The building is arguably a key Neutra work in its engagement both with the architect’s design vocabulary and his conception of architecture as a means of transmitting understanding of the outside world through the experience of the building. In this case, the National Park Service’s Mission 66 design philosophy, which called for the placement of the visitor center directly atop the historic resource resource. Longstreth and French write:The architect took advantage of the location to dramatize visitor’s encounter with the site and with the presentation of history. Instead of the static composition conceived by Park Service planners in a preliminary scheme of 1957, the realized building possesses a dynamic relationship with the setting. Movement to and through the facility is circuitous rather than direct, composed purposely to enhance the drama of viewing the painting and experiencing the historic landscape beyond. Since this goal was perhaps never realized, though part of the design. Nevertheless, the building remains a expression of Neutra’s late, nearly abstract Modernism as exemplified in the intersection of the rectilinear office wing with the fan-shaped auditorium and drum, and the nearly levitating ramp on the west elevation that allows access to the roof. The building stands in contrast to the heavy monumental architectural of the battlefield monuments, interposing an abstract yet organic presence (aided by the now non-functioning reflecting pools) that both set itself apart from the landscape and reflected it back as an observation platform. Canonical status:Though the building is a major work by one of the most celebrated twentieth-century American architects, it has not entered building canons, perhaps because of its relative obscurity within the career of Richard Neutra and later critical tendency to focus on Neutra’s residential construction rather than his public buildings, which constituted an significant percentage of his post-World War II commissions. The building has become famous largely in the fight to preserve it; it rarely appears in surveys of Neutra’s work other than collected volumes.
Gettysburg National Park archives, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania National Park Service History Collection, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia; Neutra Papers, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Special Collections, Los Angeles, CaliforniaThaddeus Longstreth Papers, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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Neutra's Cyclorama holds its ground. Newsletter / Do.co.mo.mo US, New York/Tri-State 2004 Summer, p.8.