Daily Battle (of Gettysburg): Modern Architecture vs. Historical Preservationists


The heirs of iconic architect Richard Neutra (you may have heard of him; he’s got a sick typeface) have won their own Battle of Gettysburg after squaring off against historical preservationists who sought to return the battlesite to its original sylvan state. In 1999, the National Park Service declared its intention to demolish the L.A.-based architect’s Cyclorama Center, a 1962 modernist edifice built to house a giant circular painting depicting Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. Civil War purists consider the 20th-century landmark building an “incursion on the historic site of Pickett’s charge, where Union forces held back a Confederate assault on the third day of the battle.” The presiding judges may not have ended the war, but Neutra’s design has received a stay of execution for now.

A section of the Pickett’s Charge painting housed in Cyclorama Center

The wrecking ball was set in motion last year when park officials tore down the Gettysburg vistors’ center and parking lot adjoining the Cyclorama Center, planning to raze Neutra’s building as part of a restoration effort for the 1860s-era Ziegler’s Grove.

According to the LA Times, “the federal court ruling may signal a turning point in the movement to save modernist landmarks, which supporters argue are as worthy of preservation as older, more traditionally designed structures.” A host of architects have rallied to save the building, pointing out its significance within the big picture of American history. Jason Hart, a Boston architect, points out that it was “meant as a monument to President Lincoln, who delivered the Gettysburg Address a few hundred yards away, at the national cemetery: ‘It has a lot of meaning and value to Gettysburg.'” Architecture lions Frank Gehry and Robert A.M. Stern have evidently agreed, “sending letters of support to save the center.” And Neutra’s own son, now 83, states for the record that Cyclorama Center “was ‘way up’ on his father’s list of the most important buildings of his career.”

Two views of Neutra’s Cyclorama Center, constructed in 1962

While there’s something powerful about an empty field commemorating a vital piece of U.S. historical record, a thoughtfully designed vistors’ center lends context to a place. It’s difficult to glean deeper meaning (or even chronology) without guidance, and let’s face it, most Gettysburg visitors in 2010 — 147 years after the climactic battle — aren’t Civil War experts. Tying our nation’s past to its more recent present with the help of art and architecture is a necessary effort, and one that we hope the federal justice department deems beneficial.

What do you think about preserving national historic sites and landmarks? Should one take precedence?