This is such a weird, thoroughly American story. In 1962, modernist architect Richard Neutra designed a visitors’ center for the Gettysburg site, where the Civil War’s most infamous battle was fought – and many say the war was won. The entire area is a major tourist attraction, with hundreds of historical buildings, including a working tavern built in 1776 and former President Eisenhower’s house. The visitor center was conceived around a cyclorama (which is a circular panoramic painting- I had to Google that) depicting Pickett’s Charge, an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Lee on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Well, we all know how that story ends. Not anticipating the rise of historically detail-oriented Civil War re-enactments, they placed the Neutra-designed concrete structure on top of Cemetery Ridge. As the tourist attraction grew and the 1960′s ended, more and more Civil War enthusiasts started to feel like this building was out of place, making it the subject of constant controversy and being denied Landmark status, regardless of being cited by the National Register of Historic places as having: “exceptional historic and architectural significance.” In 2005, the cyclorama that the structure was built with the intention of housing was ‘removed for restoration’ and re-installed in a nearby building, leaving the cyclorama not only sad and functionless but suspectible to decay and damage requiring maintenance and repair. This prompted appeals from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and Neutra’s own son, with funding for repairs repeatedly denied, as the building sat abandoned. In the end, options to move the the structure to another place were refuted due to size and weight and the building was demolished by bulldozers this past weekend. After preservation groups estimated it would cost $3 million dollars to restore the building, the demolition ended up costing almost $4 million.
Now, does a mid-century modern building belong smack in the center of where the Gettysburg battle took place? Probably not, and I get that people who love to re-enact battles unsurprisingly found it to be distracting. As beautiful as the cyclorama was, I understand how it could be in poor taste to plop this futuristic structure in the center of ground sacred and hallowed to America’s wartime legacy. However, bad taste is as much of a part of the fabric of history as good taste, and things have a tendency to shift in perspective with your distance from it. See, for example, the surge of 1990′s nostalgia currently cropping up everywhere. Personally, I love architecture because history can be told in so many ways, even through our blunders and our missteps. Although it is a fact that I do in particular admire mid-century modernism, I also really love the style of early-American brick buildings, having grown up in the Northeast. What I think is sad about this story is that we were unable to find a way to save this valid part of history and allow it to co-exist with, well, another part of our history. Reportedly, the Park Service plans to build a structure resembling a 19th century barn in the place of the cyclorama. So, for those of you that never got to see it, myself included, here is a gallery of photos of the cyclorama. May it rest in modernist peace.