The Gettysburg Cyclorama demolition

Where's the logic? : the Gettysburg Cyclorama demolition

It should first be noted that we are long time supporters of the National Park Service and their many programs. This is not a general condemnation of the National Park Service but rather some questions pertaining to a specific event. Even so it is often nearly impossible to understand some of the illogical decisions they make or the justifications for making them.

Having said that here are a few thoughts on the recent demolition of the Gettysburg Cyclorama...

Cyclorama, Gettysburg, PA
This Cyclorama (the second built in Gettysburg to house the painting) was part of the 10 year Mission 66 Program for revitalizing the nation’s parks. The building was designed by Richard Neutra, a leading Modernist architect for the specific purpose of housing the enormous 360° painting of Pickett’s Charge - the second version of the painting created by French Artist Paul Philippoteaux during the 1880s - after the National Park Service purchased the painting. The Cyclorama first opened in the area know as Ziegler’s Grove in 1962 prior to the Battle of Gettysburg Centennial.

Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center,
During 1999 the Gettysburg National Battlefield arm of the National Park Service (NPS from here on) announced it intended to demolish the Cyclorama in the near future which immediately resulted in preservationist groups attempting to stop the demolition plans with lawsuits and other tactics. Fast forward to 2013 and the last of the previous 14 years worth of preservation efforts were overturned and the NPS ordered to consider alternative non-demolition uses and any impact the demolition would have on the area environment before proceeding. The NPS had already created the newer, modern Visitor Center located in a valley between Taneytown Road (Route 134) and Baltimore Pike (Route 97) and approximately 1/2 to 1 mile away from the site of the Cyclorama. In building this new center they had incorporated a “round barn” look to the top of the building to house the painting from the Cyclorama.

Ms. Katie Lawhon - a spokeswoman for the the Gettysburg NPS is quoted as saying the site the Cyclorama occupied was a “key portion of the Union battle line and important to the public understanding of what happened here”. An additional point to this story is the privately run Gettysburg Foundation, which works with the NPS, was willing to cover the $3.8 million cost of demolishing the Cyclorama. It is here where we have to say we disagree with the story we’ve been given...

I first visited the Cyclorama as a teenager in the mid 1960s. While the painting was impressive the most interesting part of the visit was walking outside and talking with the ranger/docent who pointed out the various locations of points of interest that were seen in the painting. The visitor experience doesn’t get any more immediate than that. I should mention I also experienced a similar understanding of the battle when viewed from the old Battlefield Tower which I witnessed as it was brought down by controlled demolition performed by Baltimore based CDI in 2000. Many also viewed this as an eyesore as they did the Cyclorama even though it served an interpretive purpose to the public. Ultimately the NPS exercised the right of “eminent domain” to seize the privately owned site in order to destroy the tower - presumably to improve the viewshed... But that’s a story for another day...

Fast forward to the modern new Visitor Center. We visited this building a few years ago and took time to see the painting and hear the presentation. Admittedly the painting looked quite impressive and almost new, as it well should with modern lighting and a $12 million restoration. Other than that there wasn’t much difference though the viewing area seemed more crowded. Walking outside this shiny new building we were greeted with the brightly painted side of a number of shuttle buses. Looking further all that could be seen was a sea of cars in the parking lot which we had to take in order to drive the mile plus by road to the area where Pickett’s Charge took place. So much for the immediacy of a connection to the story just seen and heard... It should also be noted that while photographing the initial demolition of the Cyclorama from the east end of the site I spoke with an area reporter. Turning to look slightly northeast of the site we could see the round top section of the new Visitor Center visible below us in the valley at least 1/2 mile away and the question that came to mind was how that contributed to a visitor’s understanding of what had taken place on the spot where we were standing. Of course the answer was “It doesn’t”.

We found it interesting when recent news articles stated the Cyclorama site, known as Ziegler’s Grove, would be restored to an 1863 appearance complete with a “period” apple orchard (that should be interesting...) and replica split rail fencing. Ironically, paintings we’ve seen of the area at the time of battle don’t show any orchard or fencing - most of that appears to have been somewhat east of the site. Adding to that problem a quick glimpse around where we’re standing shows a cemetery full of headstones of Civil War soldiers, a paved two lane highway and a large parking lot. Turn around 180° and you see another paved road (Emmitsburg Road), a restaurant (ironically named General Pickett’s Buffet) and a “Battle Theatre” tourist attraction... A little further southeast in the direction of the Wheatfield, the High Water Mark, or towards the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top all that can be seen is a paved road and fields full of monuments and granite markers, and a modern observation tower (similar to the one on Culp’s Hill)at the southeast end of Confederate Avenue. It is likely none of these were a part of the 1863 appearance...

Taking the time to stop by some of the businesses on the south side of Emmitsburg Road a few folks were asked about the Cyclorama including a number who worked or visited the area regularly. Not surprisingly most of them had no idea what we were talking about and fewer still knew where it was, in a couple cases even after it was pointed out to them on the hill less than 1/2 mile away. So much for the Cyclorama being a “disruption” to the visitor experience...

view from the Ziegler's Grove site, Gettysburg, PA
The view from the site of the Cyclorama / Ziegler’s Grove.

I photographed some of the stages of the Cyclorama demolition and the one thing that kept coming to mind was the private Gettysburg Foundation and their $3.8 million dollars - it comes as a great surprise that no one could think of a positive use for that money to re-purpose at least a part of the Cyclorama building?? This was a building designed by one of the best known Modernist architects and in itself old enough and unique enough to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places operated by the NPS! It is even more disturbing considering we recently received the winter edition of Preservationist Magazine which contained extensive coverage of Modernist concrete structures and the revived interest in saving and restoring them.
Cyclorama, from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA
The Cyclorama, pre-demolition, as seen from Little Round Top
blends in among all the monuments on the fields.

Cyclorama demolition, Gettysburg, PA

Cyclorama demolition, from east end, Gettysburg, PA

Stages of demolition as seen from the west end (above) and the east end (right) of the Cyclorama. The ramp, observation deck, and entry hall have already been demolished.

Cyclorama demolition, Gettysburg, PA The end of the line.

It is quite possible the initial decision to see the Cyclorama demolished was made by someone no longer involved in the process yet the wheels continued to turn in that direction for nearly a decade and a half. We personally have no issue with the NPS, the Gettysburg Foundation, or any of the other organizations or individuals involved with this sequence of events and still applaud most of their efforts to inform the public of our history. It is just troubling to see this structure, designed, built and funded with tax dollars, sit empty and unused for so long and then to be ultimately demolished, a finale that was pursued for fourteen years with a narrow vision and determination to reach this outcome however possible and likely at great cost in legal expenses to the taxpayers. Is it really possible that not one person during that entire process saw a way to make this work? In today’s economic climate it seems there could have been more effort applied to a creative re-purposing effort. We support the removal of trees, and other things that would allow a return of the general battlefield to a near 1863 appearance such as that done near Little Round Top and in the ”Valley of Death” near Plum Run. However, there seems to be little to gain with this demolition, other than a replica orchard and some possibly period correct split rail fencing. Despite the dyed in the wool Civil War buffs and other’s complaints of the Cyclorama as being “out of place” it still seems a waste.

We learned long ago whether dealing with wildlife, forests, or historical items there is preservation, conservation and wise use. While preserving the entire Cyclorama intact in this location may not have been feasible there’s no real reason part of it could not have been conserved by re-purposing as an “on the site” interpretive center of Pickett’s Charge which would have also been a wise use. Once lost these places are gone forever and are purposely erased from the collective memory. We can not, and probably should not, save every structure, viewshed, or artifact but in many cases their preservation or reuse can help us see and understand our distant past along with providing a complementary understanding of our recent past and a guide to our future.