End of Life Cycle for Gettysburg Cyclorama

Among other accomplishments, Richard Longstreth has served as president of the Society of Architectural Historians and now directs George Washington University’s graduate program in historic preservation. In an ArchitectureWeek article, he discusses some abstract notions by referencing a real-world example, the Cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park It’s not clear whether this unique structure has already been demolished, but if not, it’s only a matter of time. What interests the author is the difference of opinion between people who don’t agree on the definitions of things like architecture and history. He says,

…the practice of preservation, like the crafting of history, is of necessity a selective act that is impossible to conduct in a purely neutral fashion. Rather, practice must be guided by reason, principle, knowledge, and fact. Much the same applies to cultural landscape, which is a construct no less than the idea of anti-restoration or of historical significance.

Consulting Wikipedia, we find that the term “cyclorama” seems to be used interchangeably to describe either the building itself, or the long, 360-degree painting of Pickett’s Charge that it was built to house. The building was designed by Austrian immigrant Richard Neutra who is recognized both as a history-sensitive modernist architect, and one who was extraordinarily attentive to the needs of his clients. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1949, and designed the Cyclorama in 1959. It was finished in 1962, toward the end of his career. He died in 1970.

Here’s an interesting historical footnote: Even though he didn’t exist, Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, is probably the architect with the highest name-recognition factor ever. Rand owned a Neutra house. Once, when Neutra brought some people over to see it, Rand focused her attention on his contractor, Fordyce Marsh. “You are the physical embodiment of Howard Roark!” she is said to have exclaimed. Neutra felt slighted, or so the story goes.

In relation to the Cyclorama, Neutra seems to be a forgotten man. On the National Park Service’s Gettysburg website only a single page mentions his name. The Cyclorama seems to be a forgotten artifact. On Flickr, a search through many pages of Gettysburg photos reveals no trace of it.

For a while, it looked as if the Cyclorama might survive. The effort to preserve it turned into a bureaucratic nightmare of which Longstreth relates only a fraction. In 1998, the National Register of Historic Places declared it of “exceptional historic and architectural significance,” and in 2005, the World Monuments Fund put it on their 100 Most Endangered Properties list. But it wasn’t enough. Those who wanted to keep the Cyclorama were ganged up on by two bureaucracies, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which said, “There are other Neutra buildings; there is only one Gettysburg Battlefield…The Building must yield.”

Longstreth deplores the attitude of the park administrators, who feel that the building is an intrusion and a violation of sacred ground. In his view, the building is an integral part of the landscape, and actually, it’s the building that is not getting due respect. He defends the Cyclorama’s right to exist, and equates the literal-minded drive to restore the Gettysburg battlefield to its previous condition as a form of snobbery.

The things added since 1863 are equally legitimate parts of the place and the meaning it holds. And even if the battleground itself could be put back like it was, there’s still the whole surrounding environment of businesses and fast roads. In fact, local merchants were among those who opposed the relocation of the visitors’ center. And in fact the parking lots will stay, “partially restored” to their 1863 appearance, whatever that means.

Any opinions on the destruction of the Cyclorama?

SOURCE: “Preserving Cultural Landscapes” 06/04/08
photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik , used under this Creative Commons license

1 Response to “End of Life Cycle for Gettysburg Cyclorama”

  1. 1 JP Wentford
    June 17, 2008 at 3:44 am

    The Neutra Cyclorama building is a magnificent building and must be saved. Officials from the National Park Service bought into plans of local developers to build a new building after neglecting the building for years and then had the audacity to blame the architect (the master Neutra) for the building’s problems. The entire “the building must yield” statement is from the simpleminded. The NPS violated the law by not considering options to restore it. This is the result of simple corruption. I am ashamed of my country.

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