Monday, July 2, 2012

Death of a Museum

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Not too terribly long ago, the old Gettysburg National Military Park's Visitor Center Cyclorama building was bustling with activity of the touristy variety. It now sits eerily vacant and covered with weeds, trees, and brush. Neglected. Ignored.

In the 1990s, battlefield preservationists lobbied to have the building razed. Sitting on the highest point of Cemetery Ridge, the culminating point of the battle on July 3, 1863,  many felt that the structure compromised the interpretive view of the landscape - and thus visitors would not be able to comprehensively understand the battle or battlefield.

But those who wished the structure away met stiff resistance. Those with an interest in preserving significant mid-century architectural achievements deemed the building worthy of life - and fought to keep it in place. In fact - there has been quite the battle raging. Dion Neutra, son of Richard Neutra, the building's architect, and the Recent Past Preservation Network have been going at it with officials of the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and the Gettysburg park in an effort to halt demolition of the Cyclorama’s old home.

Back in the 1990s, requests for funding to restore the building - removing asbestos, patching cracks, repairing masonry, and redesigning the interior - were categorically denied, and the building was slated for demolition. In 1998, the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places determined the "Cyclorama Building was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places," reversing conclusions by the National Park Service in December 1995 and the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Officer in May 1996. Litigation ensued. And as often happens with litigation....efforts to both preserve or destroy stagnated. Until 2010 - when a court finally ruled for the Recent Past Preservation Network that the NPS "had failed to comply with federal law requiring it to analyze the effect of the Cyclorama Center demolition and come up with alternatives to destroying it."

And there it sits. When I was in Gettysburg last week I spoke to more than one person about the future of this building. The consensus (off the record, of course) seems to be that the NPS is going to let the structure fall to ruin - let it decline to the point where there will be no other choice but to tear it down. For those of you who have lived in this region, you will know that it will not take long for the elements to do their grim work. So we may be seeing a lot more Ziegler's Grove and a lot less Cyclorama building very soon indeed.

I for one side with the NPS. Although I have fond memories of the building in its former glory (I spent some time there in 2001 when I was researching my UCLA undergraduate senior thesis), I feel it is time for it to go. Architectural significance or not. Adios, mi amigo viejo.


  1. Good post, Keith. I was in Gettysburg last week myself. The past few years my wife and I have taken to renting a house there the week before the battle anniversary. I walked around the building and it indeed does seem that they are allowing it to fall into disrepair. I blogged about the building last summer ( and must say I believe it is time for the old Cyclorama Building to go. It is time for it to become part of the national military park's rich and storied history. We add to that history and make new traditions every time we visit.

  2. here's the latest on the future of the building (as of August 2012). It seems as though there is no future at all.

  3. Can you explain why you think it should go? For my part, I do a fair amount of research in the history of recreation, and I think it has definite significance in that area. I think considering the ways the Gettysburg site has been used and its history interpreted--and the building, by its very presence, fits into that--are very legitimate goals. It makes me think the case of a beautiful early 20th century hotel in Leesburg, Virginia, near where I live, that was torn down in the 1960s to make way for offices of the Clerk of the Court. The reasoning was that it was neither from the colonial nor the Civil War period, so it wasn't "really" historical.

  4. Thanks for the comment Richelle. I understand your point - one that is shared by many. In some ways, the building is part of the Gettysburg commemorative landscape, and I might add, the Gettysburg commercial landscape. It exists in much the same way as the old observation tower, the railroad tracks to little Round Top, and other things that have now been removed.
    I also think that is a wonderful example of mid-century architecture.
    But...and here is my sticking point: I believe the efforts by the NPS to restore the battlefield to its 1863 appearance are of greater import than saving the building. As it now sits - in the center of the Union line - it obscures the wartime landscape and interferes with with how one might understand a very important part of that battle.
    I think that the NPS had a tough choice to make but that they ultimately made the right one. .

  5. I had no opinion about this issue and was interested to read about the split opinions.

    I visited Gettysburg for the first (and so far only) time about a year and a half ago. Of course the visitor center/museum complex and the new display for the painting-in-the-round are simply spectacular.

    I'm inclined to think that the painting itself is of considerably more importance than the building that once housed it. As it has an outstanding home, there would appear to be no compelling reason to maintain the old building. Of course there is sentimental attachment to it, and for perfectly good reason, but in the end that attachment must be more sentimental than historical. If the painting had not found such a wonderful new home then I might feel otherwise. But while we should honor the past, and strive to learn from the past, that doesn't mean we necessarily must embalm every old building, even those that hold fond memories. Another lesson of the past is that we always keep slipping forward toward tomorrow.