A heartbreaking tale for the modern architecture lover in all of us.
If you're a devoted disciple of modern architecture, it's a pretty safe bet that you are also a fan of Richard Neutra and his clean, crisp, and dare I say a bit hedonistic brand of modernism. But despite Neutra's popularity and consequential role as one of America's most prolific practitioners of modern architecture, his work has not always escaped the swing of the wrecking ball. In 2013, the National Park Service (NPS) demolished Neutra and partner Robert Alexander's design for the Cyclorama building at Gettysburg National Battlefield, a sad end to one of the most contentious preservation battles of the last thirty years. The flagship project of the NPS's Mission 66 program, the Cyclorama building was an important example of Neutra's public work and a model of the NPS's push for modernist-style infrastructure. Its loss, the result of changing contextual interpretations, demonstrates that the conflict surrounding what we preserve is far from over.
In 1956, the NPS introduced an ambitious federally-sponsored program to modernize infrastructure across the national park system. Responding to the massive increase in park visitation following World War II, the NPS spent more than $1 billion to rehabilitate existing buildings, construct better roads, and build (the now ubiquitous) visitor centers, all in the name of improving the overall park experience. Today, those improvements, including many of the visitor centers built in a sleek, modern style, still function, a quiet reminder of the bold improvements made by the NPS during the mid-twentieth century.
Designed in 1959, Neutra and Alexander's visitor center for the Gettysburg National Military Park was one of the most prominent projects of the Mission 66 program. A gleaming, modern building set within the solemn landscape of the Civil War site, the forward-looking structure was situated within the southern portion of Ziegler's Grove, a critical point in the battlefield's history. The modernist design served several functions, including space for visitor services, administration offices, a lecture hall, exhibition spaces, and an observation platform. Perhaps most importantly though, the building housed The Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama painting by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux.
Tasked with creating a multi-functional visitor center on sacred ground, the Neutra partnership seized the unique opportunity, designing a high-concept building that not only served the individual but sought to improve humanity through a series of meditative spaces linked to the site by framed views and natural materials. Opening in 1962, the Cyclorama building stood as a low and lean composition of glass, steel, and concrete, its pièce de résistance, a white cylindrical drum housing the 12-ton, 27-foot-high, 377-foot-long Philippoteaux canvas. Unveiled at the height of the Cold War, the unsentimental modern building rooted in the historic landscape offered a solemn place to contemplate conflicts of both the past and the present.
When former President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the building's dedication, the modern spirit of the new Cyclorama awed the public, inspiring a renewed appreciation for America's great system of parks. Set to commence in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the NPS, the Mission 66 program proved to be a great success, its streamlined, modern amenities emblematic of a new era. But after only a couple of decades, the celebrated Neutra-designed building at Gettysburg suffered from a lack of proper maintenance, and soon the NPS adopted a nearby building to serve as the park's visitor center. By the 1990s, the NPS began discussing plans to restore Ziegler's Grove to its original 1863 appearance, a move that would set into motion the eventual demise of the Cyclorama.
When the NPS made plans to restore Ziegler's Grove to its historic condition (providing critical viewsheds of the battlefield), the agency effectively labeled the Cyclorama building as an obstacle to the site's successful rehabilitation and publicly advocated for its removal. The next decade pitted Civil War historians against advocates of America's recent past, with many from the NPS (not to mention National Trust President Richard Moe) lobbying for demolition. Arguing that most visitors came to Gettysburg to see the battlefield, not Neutra's architecture, these professionals continued to back removal of the building even after it was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In a final attempt to save the Cyclorama building, the Recent Past Preservation Network and the son of Richard Neutra, architect Dion Neutra (who was also involved in the project's design), sued to stop demolition. But the lawsuit ultimately proved unsuccessful, and following an intense 14-year-long battle, the building was torn down on dreary day in March 2013. Richard Neutra's only public building east of the Mississippi River had been removed.
This was no doubt a tough case, and no matter where you fall on the -what should we preserve- question, there is still something troubling about the National Park Service removing such a significant architectural resource. Many students of preservation will likely study and debate the controversial final decision in the years to come, and the battle for history, memory, and the architectural landscape will continue.
You can read more about Neutra's design and the Mission 66 program here.
All photographs are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Richard Neutra, Architect, Neutra & Alexander, Thaddeus Longstreth, Robert Alexander, Dion Neutra, Orndorff Construction Company, et al. Cyclorama Building, 125 Taneytown Road, Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, pa3988.
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