Gettysburg 2: A Battle Over Monuments
July 03, 2004
In addition to my own geneological connection to the Battle of Gettysburg described below, there is another bond between those fields of southern Pennsylvania and the greater Los Angeles area, by way of architecture.
One of the attractions of the Gettysburg battlefield since 1962 has been The Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 359 feet long, 27 feet high, 360 degree view of Pickett's Charge painted by Paul Philippoteaux in 1884. The Cyclorama is housed, for the time being, in a building designed by Richard Neutra, generally regarded as a giant of post-war California architecture. The Cyclorama Center is Neutra's most prominent building east of the Mississippi, and as reported in a long article in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine, it is slated to be demolished in 2007. (The article link requires registration, but does not seem to be behind the dreadful Calendar Live pay barrier, which is itself rumored soon to be torn down.) The actual painting is to be carefully and expensively restored, then relocated to a new location and new building at a less historically important location a half mile away, but the building and all traces of it are to be erased. As described in the article, the Cyclorama Center is the loser in a battle between those who consider it historically-inappropriate to a Civil War battle site, and who particularly object to its presence at a spot of particular importance in the battle, and those who consider the building historically important in itself.
The on-line version of the Times article does not include any of the photos and illustrations that accompanied the print version. The Neutra firm, still run by Richard Neutra's son Dion, maintains a site covering many of the firm's past and present projects. It includes a slideshow of photos of the Cyclorama Center at and around the time of its construction. There you will also find a link to reCyclorama: The Campaign to Save Neutra's Cyclorama, which provides a gallery of both older and current photos and drawings (including a telling shot of the KFC and gas station just across the street from the Center). That site is part of a larger project by Los Angeles-based Christine Madrid French devoted to the Eisenhower administration's Mission 66, intended to modernize the National Park system's facilities in response to the enormous post-war increase in tourism. Fans of mid-century vintage National Park Visitor's Centers will find much of interest.
As you may have guessed, my own inclination would be to leave the Cyclorama Center where it is. Unlike many projects by Major Architects, the Center does not set out to call attention to itself at the expense of its surrounding. When the surrounding trees are in leaf, the building is not easy except on close approach. Even in winter, as when I saw it last year, it is not obtrusive, being well shaped and relatively low-slung on the rise on which it is sited. Its clean lines and use of basic shapes give it a neutrality in the landscape that does not detract, and it does not fall prey to the theme-parky quality of buildings that self-consciously ape an "historical" style, as does the design for the new Center viewable here, at a site devoted to encouraging the clearance of the current Cyclorama/Visitor's Center site in the name of restoring, to the extent possible, the original battle lines, and here, at the site of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, the private co-venturer in the project.
Personal reminiscence: I have visited the Cyclorama twice. On my first encounter, around 1969 or 1970, the painting made a strong impression, if only in terms of its sheer size, but I paid no particular attention to the building that houses it. I returned on a very cold and blustery February day in 2003, with my wife and sons. We had been driving the battlefield through the afternoon, and returned to the Park headquarters just in time to catch the final showing of the Cyclorama that day. We turned out to be the only visitors at that hour, and were treated to a private showing of the painting, which continues to impress. I paid a little more attention to the building the second time, and thought that it was clearly the product of a particular time, but a good one. Its provenance as a Neutra project wasn't brought to my attention until the Times article. I like the building enough on its own terms to be disappointed in its upcoming destruction even without its having such a Big Name attached to it.