The Fate of Neutra’s Cyclorama at Gettysburg Has National Implications

Cyclorama Gettysburg Library of Congress Photo 2002The National Park Service has published their environmental assessment report outlining options for Richard Netura’s 1961 Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg. Their recommended fate for the building: demolition. This comes after two decades of argument and a three year lawsuit between preserving the building in place and removing the building to rehabilitate the battlefield beneath it.

The report considers three main options: mothballing the building for later use, moving the building to a new site, or demolishing the building. Several other options were considered (some of which my firm proposed in 2010) but they were dismissed from further analysis including: rehabilitation of the building in place, relocation and reuse for Park Service offices or museum space, selective demolition of parts and rehabilitation of some elements as a memorial, and lastly, maintained in place and leased to a third-party for reuse. These options have been dismissed because the Park Service intends to remove the building to return this portion of the Civil War battlefield to its 1863 appearance.

It is quite discouraging that a building conceived by the Park Service and its architect with honest intentions of commemoration and unity has come to polarize and divide people in such ugly ways.

I believe the Park Service acknowledges the significance of the Cyclorama Building, but from their perspective it pales in comparison to the significance of the battlefield which is the central mission at Gettysburg. This entrenched argument between those who wish to preserve the building and those who wish to rehabilitate the land has perhaps left each side blinded to the significance of the other.

I view the case from both perspectives. I am a practicing architect versed in modern history and the great-grandson of a Union Soldier who fought the Battle of Gettysburg with the 43rd New York Infantry.

All places and buildings are created, altered and destroyed by human need and desire. The Cyclorama Building was created as a visitor center to serve the interpretive needs of the park in 1961. All buildings are created with thought, but some buildings are conceived by great thinkers that build upon and move other ideas forward. Some buildings embody societal values and aspirations. Some buildings take risks that push technology forward. It can be difficult to understand how modernist buildings build upon each other. Consider the example of the telephone. It has evolved from a rotary dial with a twelve foot cord to the touch-tone to the cordless shoebox to the wireless smartphone in our pocket. Each one is an iteration of ideas, values, aspirations and technology built upon the preceding model. Each Civil War battlefield knits together a long and complex American history, and each significant modernist building plays a distinct role in knitting together the evolution of America’s architectural history.

The Cyclorama Building is a patch in the quilt of American architectural history. It embodies an engineering feat with its innovative steel span. It has early sustainability aspirations with its sun control louvers and reflecting pool. Its large doors and speaking rostrum open to the fields to serve as a gathering place for speakers to promote American values of unity and peace. It’s even a reflection of McCarthyism with the bomb shelter under the office wing. Moreover, it served as an interpretive center for the battlefield, inviting the visitor up to its viewing deck to look upon and ponder the meaning of those three days in American history. Its physical form embodies meaning in American architectural history and the ideas and forms that have been built upon by later thinkers.

The act of preservation is a necessity in maintaining the memory and authenticity of historical record. Its collection creates the identity of a nation – our past is the basis from which we move forward and the foundation we continue to build upon. The Cyclorama, and certainly the battlefield, embody meaning in their physical form that has laid the foundation of American values for future generations.

I understand why the Park Service wants to remove the building. I personally would not have placed the building on the ridge where two armies met, but in 1961 the Park Service purposefully situated the visitor center there in effort to immerse visitors into the scene. While this is no longer the favored approach, history is not always what those in the future would like it to be.

However, their intentions to remove the building are clear. If this is the way forward, then the Park Service, as guardian of the nation’s most significant historic resources, should make a concerted effort to separate these two resources it has deemed incompatible. It should not turn a blind eye and simply erase the building fully from memory. This would be a tragedy. The Park Service built and owns both the building and the battlefield. It has a larger obligation under its founding values to do right on both fronts.

I recommend the Park Service consider degrees of preservation in the following order: 1) mothballing for future use, 2) moving, 3) partial demolition/memorial, 4) donating significant features to museums or sculpture parks, and lastly 5) selling small pieces of the building to the public Berlin Wall-style.

I realize option 1) mothballing the building may be controversial, but option 2) moving the building is quite viable. If the Park Service can not use the building itself, it could solicit developers through a public bid process. There are many opportunities with option 3) partial demolition and option 4) donating significant features to museums. I think option 5) selling small pieces of the building to the public Berlin Wall-style could also be an intriguing approach. The pieces could be sold to building enthusiasts and a website could be created to track the pieces in the image of the whole building. This would serve to raise historical awareness and both physically and virtually preserve the building. Proceeds could go to benefit other preservation efforts.

These ideas, ranging from traditional to provocative, achieve varying degrees of preservation in an effort to retain the historical ideas, memories, and values embodied in the physical objects.

I would urge the Park Service to reconsider some degree of preservation and not to wholly erase the building. Too many significant mid-century buildings are being demolished across our nation. As a result we are losing, piece by piece, the national memory and story of American architectural history. The Park Service has an obligation to guard such resources for future generations. It now has an opportunity to help move the idea of preservation forward with the Cyclorama Building and whichever path the Park Service chooses, its actions will set a national precedent.

Jason Hart, AIA, LEED AP
CUBE design + research | www.cubework.com

Photo of Cyclorama, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Avatar of Jason W. Hart About Jason W. Hart

Jason W. Hart, AIA, LEED AP, is a co-founder of CUBE design + research. Organized in 2005, CUBE is a design practice centered on big ideas working across the disciplines of architecture, urban design, and preservation. Jason holds degrees from MIT, the University of Florida, and St. Petersburg Junior College.

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