Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Small Protest Outside Gettysburg's Cyclorama

The Cyclorama. Photo taken by the author on 2/23/2013.
This past Sunday, about a dozen or so protestors gathered outside of the Cyclorama building to voice their continued objection to its demolition. Meanwhile, the process of asbestos abatement, which is necessary before the building can be demolished, has already begun.

The building was built in 1962 as part of the national Mission 66 initiative to opened visitor centers in parks across the country in recognition of the Park Service's 50th birthday. Though it served its original purpose as the park's main visitor center only briefly, the building continued to house the famous cyclorama painting by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux until 2008.

Contentious debate has surrounded the decision to tear down the Cyclorama building, which has been a part of the Park Service's plans since 1999. The Park would like to rehabilitate the landscape to its commemorative-era appearance. Dion Neutra, the son of the building's designer Richard Neutra, has led the fight to preserve his father's work - arguing that the building should become a museum dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and the legacy of the Gettysburg Address. In an article in The Evening Sun Neutra claimed that he has collected a petition with about 4,300 signatures.

Personally, I continue to sit on the fence on this controversy. On the one hand - I understand much of the Park Service's rationale for destroying the building. I also have witnessed in other areas of the battlefield some of the interpretive benefits that can be gained through a rehabilitation of historic landscapes and view sheds. 

On the other hand, history has many layers - and while the Park exists to tell the story of the battle of Gettysburg, I find it a bit dangerous when we begin to decide that one piece of history is more important than another. What's more - I also feel that the Cyclorama in a way has become a part of the history of the battle, as it is part of the history of how we have interpreted the battle. The story of Gettysburg's commemoration and interpretation is one of the layers of history that I find so unique and fascinating about the battlefield.

In the end, I guess I'd have to side with tearing the building down, if only because there seems to be no other options left. The Park Service is unfortunately not blessed with unlimited money, and the renovation and upkeep costs on the building would seem a wasted expense with the new museum and visitor's center already in place just down the road. The building has already begun to decay from neglect, and I fear over time it will become more of an eyesore.

One thing about this whole affair that I have noticed disturbs me though. In the past few weeks and months, after the final decision was handed down - I've seen many posts, comments and emails on Civil War and Gettysburg-related blogs, websites, and listservs that seemed overtly gleeful over the Cyclorama's downfall. While I understand the arguments for tearing the building down, and agree with some of them, I found this enthusiasm for the building's destruction strange.

This building was not some tourist trap monstrosity (see: National Tower). It was built by the Park Service itself to interpret the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps it has lived its purpose, and it is time for its demise. But to celebrate its demise with zeal, and to demonize those who fight to save the Cyclorama, seems strange to me, especially from a community that is often on the losing end of preservation fights.


  1. The destruction of the Cyclorama is not gleefully received in the historic preservation community; it is a cautionary tale for all of us about the wisdom of inserting new structures in a historic landscape and also raises many questions about layers of historical development and how they are managed. There are many fence sitters, because it is a question we wrestle with more than ever now. Our system, devised originally for sites of finite historical importance, tends to treat sites as artifacts. It is evolving, but not without difficulty. But reenactors and fans of Civil War history see this as hallowed ground. Civil War Battlefields are recognized for their history, but they have their own cultural associations as well. Like a house museum, they exist in a different framework of expectation than - for example, a historic downtown.

    Thank you for an insightful article.

  2. Elizabeth, thank you very much for your comment, and for reading the blog. I tend to agree that this episode is a cautionary tale.