In 1996, the National Park Service officials announced their intention to demolish Neutra and Alexander’s 1961 modernist Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a premiere first generation “visitor center” and a stunning example of a master architect’s late-life aspirations. Despite its recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places for its “”its exceptional historic and architectural significance,” the long-neglected building stands in the way of National Park Service plans to “restore” the battlefield landscape and move visitor facilities into a new interpretive center designed in a “more appropriate” architectural style.
The Gettysburg project posed considerable challenges for architect Richard Neutra. Commissioned as a flagship building for the National Park Service’s “Mission 66” program — a nationwide, billion-dollar program to modernize the U.S. parks — the new visitor center had to house a massive 1883 panoramic painting depicting the battle of Gettysburg and occupy one of the most famous sites in American history. Neutra created a drum-shaped concrete rotunda to house the 40-foot high circular canvas; a glass, concrete, and stone wing accommodates ranger’s offices and information services. Park officials insisted that the building be constructed on a prominent site overlooking the field where Pickett made his famous charge during the pivotal 1883 battle – the same spot depicted in the painting’s brilliant scenography and a location deemed most convenient for the multitudes expected to visit the building during the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.
At its opening The New York Times predicted that this “handsome new $1,000,000 Park Visitor Center” would “become one of the showplaces of the National Park System.” The Washington Post praised the “quietly monumental but entirely unsentimental” Neutra design, citing the Cyclorama Center as one of a set of “exceptionally distinguished and fearlessly modern” buildings in the national parks, each deserving of an architectural excellence award. In 1970, the American Institute of Architects agreed, honoring Mission 66 and the Park Service for the innovative development of modern facilities “in harmony with the architectural theme” of each park.
Gettysburg today is viewed as hallowed ground, a nationalist shrine to both victor and vanquished, Lincoln’s triumphant “Union” and Jefferson Davis’s valiant “Lost Cause.” But Neutra rightly interpreted the battlefield legacy in a much larger sense, one that uniquely applied Lincoln’s vision to a contemporary international political context. The U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, created in 1957, set the tone when they emphasized that the upcoming anniversary celebrations be devoted to “keeping peace through international understanding.” Neutra incorporated this message wholeheartedly in the Cyclorama Building –one of his last major public commissions. In his hands, the visitor center became a place of “cultural interchange” rather than a mere tourist trap. Crowds of up to 30,000 people could be accommodated outside the building which opened up to reveal an elevated “Rostrum of the Prophetic Voice.” The visionary architect imagined that a procession of “great statesmen of the Nations…may be even a ‘Cold War’ enemy nation” such as India’s Jawaharlal Nehru or China’s Chou En-Lai, would present stirring speeches promoting global unanimity at the yearly anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Where Lincoln spoke poignantly of the shattered Union between northern and southern states, Neutra dedicated his latter-day Lincoln Memorial to the cause of international harmony in a world threatened with atomic annihilation and a nation consumed with internal issues of civil rights.
Although Neutra’s memorial concept resonated with America’s international ambitions at mid century, changing social and political environments quickly rendered its utopian message ineffective. Today the Park Service maintains that the building must be removed from the battlefield. Yet Neutra’s intentions for the structure and his humanistic theories behind its development -for years suppressed and unexplored — are just beginning to be understood in the context of his period and ours.
In November, 2000, the National Parks Advisory Board refused to grant National Historic Landmark status to the Cyclorama Building, but approved the nominations for three other Mission 66-era visitor centers with identical historic contexts and statements of significance: Dinosaur, Utah; Wright Brothers, North Carolina; and Rocky Mountain, Colorado. Politics?
A renewed effort to save the building is underway, led by the Recent Past Preservation Network in cooperation with the Neutra Institute of Survival Through Design, DOCOMOMO, and other allied organizations. This coalition of preservationists is calling upon key public officials, including Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, to “pardon” the building and provide funds for its restoration. Only public support can save this building now. Sign on here to save the Cyclorama!
[by Christine Madrid French for the DOCOMOMO U.S. newsletter; photographs ©Boris Starosta]
See also select measured drawings of the building,
recently completed by the Historic American Buildings Survey
on our HABS Drawings page
featuring downloadable PDFs of each image.
Other sites with images:
Photo Gallery of Images on the Richard and Dion Neutra Architecture site.
Landscape Preservation and Interpretation: Issues of Use, Historical Experience, and Myth at Gettysburg National Military Park. Thesis by Nathan Jefferson Riddle (Columbia University, 1998). Critical analysis of National Park Service interpretive policies at Gettysburg NMP with special coverage of Neutra’s Cyclorama Building (ca. 1961) and its place on the battlefield of Gettysburg.
“The Gettysburg park staff tendentiously approached writing the DOE with the intention of portraying the building’s mechanical and maintenance problems as inherent design flaws. The motive of the park service was to portray the building as a lesser, pitiful example of Neutra’s work, designed when he was in poor health and at the end of his partnership with Robert Alexander. Based upon an anti-modern conceit of the park Superintendent, the analysis is slanted and misleading. Latschar’s intentions and the arguments used to support his proposals pose dangers more general than to just Neutra’s building. The National Park Service acts as a preservation mentor for the nation, and in this regard, if the argument becomes accepted that the technical failings of a structure render that work of negligible significance, then the country would lose many cherished architectural icons.” Read more…