Workers have commenced demolition of the Cyclorama building at Gettysburg National Military Park, concluding a controversial drama that dates to 1999.
Designed by noted architect Richard Neutra and constructed in 1962, the mid-century building was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It was one of a handful of high-profile modern visitor centers designed as part of the Mission 66 initiative to upgrade park facilities.
National Park Service
Designed by noted architect Richard Neutra and constructed in 1962, the Cyclorama building in Gettysburg, PA, is being demolished. The building featured a cyclorama painting of Pickett's Charge.
In addition to serving as a visitor center overlooking the historic battlefield, the building was designed specifically to display an 1883 cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge by French artist Paul Phillippoteaux.
The painting commemorates the disastrous Confederate infantry assault led by Major Gen. George E. Pickett on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, against the center of the Union line. The doomed assault closed three days of bloody battle at Gettysburg, where some 51,000 soldiers from both armies were killed, wounded, captured or missing.
Four months after the battle—a turning point in the Civil War—President Lincoln delivered his famous address in dedicating the site as the Gettysburg's Soldiers National Cemetery.
The Cyclorama was built on the center of the Union battle line on Cemetery Ridge, near where Union forces repelled Pickett's Charge. The structure served as a visitor center until 1971 and displayed the famed cyclorama painting until 2008, when it was moved to a new building on site.
Since then, the building has sat empty with its fate uncertain while a legal dispute raged.
The National Park Service initially made the decision to level the building in 1999 in order to rehabilitate the Pennsylvania battleground to its historic battle and 1864-1938 commemorative-era appearance.
However, that decision (and the process by which it was made) was challenged in a 2006 lawsuit waged by the Recent Past Preservation Network, Dion Neutra (the architect’s son and an architect himself), and architectural historian Christine Madrid French.
The plaintiffs argued that the Park Service had failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in making the decision to demolish the structure, according to court documents.
“The theme-park concept of falsely recreating a landscape that can never be put back to 1863 is an unconscionable intellectual travesty,” the late J. Carter Brown, chairman of The Commission of Fine Arts, reportedly said of the Park Service's plan.
On the other hand, Civil War historians and other preservationists agreed with the Park Service decision to raze the structure, saying it blocked views necessary to teach the story of Gettysburg, according to various reports.
In March 2010, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Park Service had complied with the Historic Preservation Act, but not the Environmental Protection Act.
The court ordered the agency to undertake a “site-specific environmental analysis on the demolition of the Cyclorama Center” and to consider “non-demolition alternatives” before implementing any action, the Park Service said.
The Recent Past Preservation Network wanted the Park Service to relocate the structure, not destroy it.
In August 2012, the Park Service issued a 221-page environmental assessment that evaluated three alternatives: demolish the building; allow a third party to relocate the building outside park boundaries; and a "no action" alternative, to “mothball” the building in place.
The assessment was released for a 30-day public review and comment period that ended Sept. 21, 2012. More than 1,600 pieces of correspondence were received on the document, according to the Park Service.
“A majority of the commenters supported demolition of the building in order to rehabilitate the battle and commemorative landscapes,” the Park Service said.
Therefore, the National Park proceeded with its preferred alternative, secured funding for demolition, and announced its Finding of No Significant Impact in January 2013.
The beginning stages of the demolition involved several weeks of asbestos remediation, according to the Park Service. Demolition, which began the first week of March, is expected to be complete by April.
In addition to razing the building, the Park Service plans to return monuments to their historic locations, rebuild commemorative pedestrian pathways, and rebuild historic fences.
National Park Service
The Cyclorama building was constructed to display this 360-degree painting of Pickett's Charge by French artist Paul Phillippoteaux. The painting was moved from the building in 2008.
Gettysburg National Military Park is a unit of the National Park Service that preserves and protects the resources associated with the Battle of Gettysburg and the Soldiers' National Cemetery, and provides an understanding of the events that occurred there.
The Park Service has altered the Gettysburg landscape before, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
“In 1974, the agency purchased Gettysburg Fantasyland, a small-scale Disneyland-style theme park which opened in 1959 just south of General Meade’s headquarters," the magazine reported.
“Before it closed in 1980, Gettysburg Fantasyland featured attractions like the Enchanted Forest and Santa’s Village; Fort Apache, which included nightly ‘attacks’ by actors dressed as Native Americans; Rapunzel’s Castle, and a dairy barn that allowed visitors (5′ and under, alas) to slide into a pile of hay. Entrants to the park were greeted by a talking, twenty-three-foot Mother Goose.”
Neutra’s contributions to American design include some of the greatest works of architecture in the country, such as the Lovell “Health” House in Los Angeles and the Kauffman House in Palm Springs, according to the Recent Past Preservation Network.
In 1977, Neutra was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, a prestigious award honoring his “lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.”
The Cyclorama building at Gettysburg was a rare example of Neutra’s civic architecture and one of a handful of cyclorama buildings in the United States.
“The architect himself described it as the project closest to his heart,” the nonprofit organization reported.