Death of a Museum
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.