Gettysburg National Military Park

Historic Site
Gettysburg National Military Park photo
Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

At Last, a Gettysburg Redress
With Its New (but Old-Fashioned) Visitor Center and A Plan to Restore Sightlines, the Battlefield Honors Its Past

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008; Page C01

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- If you stand on the low rise known as Cemetery Ridge, above the killing fields of Gettysburg, you command one of the most important "what if" promontories of American history. It was here, on July 3, 1863, that the course of the famous Civil War battle might have turned. It was here that the Confederacy -- or the rebellion -- reached what became known as its "high-water mark." It was here that the entire direction of the war might have changed, if Pickett's Charge had decisively broken the Union line, if the election of 1864 had consequently gone against Lincoln, if the North, humiliated by a Confederate victory on Union soil, had sued for peace.

Generations of military men, amateur historians, little boys with dreams of glory and tourists of all stripes have stood on this site and wondered: What if? But a new set of questions and a new set of priorities have come to Gettysburg. The high-water mark, with its sweeping view of the mountains, its stone forest of memorial markers, its little copse of old trees that may, perhaps, be descendants of the original trees that once served as a focal point for the Confederate attack on Union lines, is again on the front lines of history.

With the opening today of a new, $103 million visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park, Cemetery Ridge is undergoing the most radical change to its look and feel in a generation. The new visitor center, hidden in a hollow behind the ridge, has made both the old visitor center and the Cyclorama Building -- designed by the renowned architect Richard Neutra in the 1960s -- obsolete. And so, in an effort to return the battlefield to its original state, the National Park Service is about to tear down both structures, which have for decades sat squarely in the middle of the Union lines.

These changes are part of a rehabilitation project that has produced dramatic changes on the battlefield. In the early 1990s, power lines that ran along the Emmitsburg Road -- one of several historic roads that converge at Gettysburg -- were buried underground. In 2000, a hulking observation tower -- a tourist trap that offered paying visitors the chance to survey the battlefield from on high -- was demolished. And today, the Park Service continues to remove trees and build fences, in an effort to re-create the original sightlines of the 1863 battle.

It's not just physical changes. Exhibits and films at the new museum are focused on the context of the war, the issue of slavery, the economic challenges faced by North and South -- a shift in emphasis that is happening throughout the National Park Service's Civil War sites. From the very opening of the new, 22-minute introductory movie, viewers are reminded that slavery was not just a cherished Southern tradition but also essential to the bottom line of Northern textile mill owners. The historical galleries next to the theaters are very much in line with the contemporary trend toward media-dense exhibits, filled with shorter films in mini-theaters, all carefully structured to draw the viewer through "a narrative" presentation of the war, its causes and its aftermath.

And driving all this change is a closely watched arrangement between the Park Service and the nonprofit, independent Gettysburg Foundation, which may change the way the nation's premier cultural sites are funded, tended and preserved. Without this agreement, under which the foundation raises funds for the park, and owns and operates the visitor center, it's unlikely that most of the $125 million in improvements could have been made. It is a relationship that gives the park economic flexibility, gives it greater control over its finances and allows it to make innovations that might not seem particularly innovative anywhere except within the National Park Service. For instance, it will now be possible to buy tickets to the theater and battlefield tours online.

"Which, for us, is like jumping straight from the 19th century to the 21st century," says John A. Latschar, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park.

The most notable change, for most tourists, will be the visitor center, which is designed to look like a typical farm structure one might find anywhere in the hills of Pennsylvania. The old cyclorama is being refurbished and reinstalled in what looks like a low, squat silo, painted barn red. Wooden beams salvaged from Civil War era barns have been used, both as decoration and to support porch overhangs. Much of the building is clad in central Pennsylvania granite, which has the curious feature of seeming to be both blue and gray at the same time.

It is everything the Richard Neutra building is not. That structure, a concrete, modernist facility that housed the cyclorama in a round, bunker-like tube, is an overstated, chilly yet compelling presence. The new center is backward-looking, faux-historical and architecturally bland. And there's little doubt that the new building is the right one for Gettysburg.

"In the mid-1960s, the National Park Service was pursuing what one would think was an enlightened policy of trying to get the best architects in the world to design visitor centers," says Jerry Rogers, who served as associate director for cultural resources at the Park Service in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Neutra building "was a physical intrusion, and an architectural masterpiece. And that created controversy from Day One."

The Park Service, says Rogers, also sited the building in the middle of the historic lines of battle as part of a policy to get visitors into the middle of the action. Now the policy is to make the buildings blend in, and move them to the sidelines, a policy Rogers supports.

But the desire to be in the thick of the things still controls many of the decisions being made at Gettysburg. The old cyclorama, a 377-foot round painting of the battle created by Paul Philippoteaux in 1884, was the "immersive" cultural experience of its day. It has taken on such iconic status that it is being restored to its original format, which requires meticulous repair and repainting, and the re-creation of three-dimensional diorama pieces (installed along the edges of the painting to create an optical illusion) that have been missing for at least 40 years. (It will be unveiled at the center's "grand opening" in September.)

It is an odd way to spend $15 million -- the artistic equivalent of preserving and rebuilding an old McDonald's or saving a commercial sign simply because it's become a familiar part of the landscape. But after almost 100 years of life at Gettysburg, there was no question that the cyclorama would be retained.

That is typical of the often irrational choices that must inevitably be made when the goal is to restore a place to its look at a given point in history. According to the Park Service, in 1863 there were 898 acres of wooded land on the battlefield; today trees cover about 1,974 acres. Removing them is history's gain, but the environment's loss -- though, to be fair, the Park Service is also re-creating wetlands and the new visitor center is heated and cooled with geothermal wells.

And while site lines are re-created by removing forest and rebuilding old lanes, roads and fences, the battlefield is covered with 1,328 monuments, which feels like one for every regiment that trod the bloody fields. Some of them, especially the Pennsylvania memorial, are so large they amount to substantial stone structures. None were there when the battle was fought, of course, but there are no plans to remove them.

Curiously, the effort to rehabilitate the battlefield as authentic, 19th-century farmland comes when the events of the battle are increasingly being subsumed into a different kind of historical narrative. The daily blow-by-blow is still there. But it is surrounded by a broader discussion of the early U.S. history, slavery, westward expansion and the fraught presidential election of 1860. Only about a third of the museum space is devoted to the three-day battle, in which almost 8,000 men died and tens of thousands were wounded or captured.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who hasn't yet seen the new visitor center, thinks the Park Service is making progress in its effort to tell a broader story. He toured Civil War sites in 1996 and said he found that many of them "wouldn't even tell you why they were fighting." Jackson noticed that sites that were in areas without much political or racial diversity tended to focus more minutely on battle tactics and elide the whole issue of the war's causes. So he inserted language to accompany a 2000 Interior Department funding bill that required Park Service managers to emphasize "the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at individual battle sites."

Visitors who sit through the new film will hear a collage of voices on the subject of the war's causes, including passages from Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," which bubbled up to new prominence during the recent controversy over remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Even more powerful is the film's reminder that the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, which documentarian Ken Burns celebrated in conventional style as a moment of healing between North and South, was in fact a rapprochement only for white people, even as Jim Crow laws were becoming pervasive throughout the South. And that President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke at the reunion ceremony of new brotherhood between North and South, returned to the White House to sign orders segregating the federal workforce.

This hasn't come without controversy. Rogers points out that Gettysburg was originally a military park, that it was for decades a place for military officers to study the particulars of a particular battle.

"It is kind of understandable that the original emphasis on Civil War battlefields had to do with strategy and tactics and battlefield action," he says.

And then there was opposition from Southern groups who felt not only that the traditional emphasis on the battle and heroes of the battle should be retained, but that focusing on slavery as a cause of the war diminished the importance of states' rights as an issue.

There is also deep discomfort among many Park Service people about the degree to which private groups are funding public initiatives. Robert Arnberger, who sits on the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, worries that the increased reliance on private money is weaning Americans from the responsibility to protect places like Gettysburg with tax dollars.

"On the surface that appears to be a really neat idea," Arnberger says of the new fad for public-private partnerships. "The problem is that the projects that get done are only the projects that you have a partner for. And it skews the entire prioritization of what's important in the Park Service."

In practical terms, that means that glamour projects, such as a new visitor center at a beloved battlefield, get funded, while fixing sewage lines or repairing roads moves to the bottom of the list.

Latschar, whom many credit for having pursued the rehabilitation of Gettysburg with impressive determination, is happy just to be free of the old visitor center.

"We were holding the old place together with duct tape and chewing gum," he says. Given that the Gettysburg Foundation will operate and maintain the new visitor center, being rid of the old one, which the Park Service maintained, will save money.

These funding issues will be mostly lost on visitors to the new facility. The success of the building isn't architectural, and it isn't even particularly about the new, more contextual history it presents. What makes it work is its basic seriousness, its fustiness, its old-fashioned look and feel. It is understated in a classic National Park Service way. It feels like a seamless part of the old Park Service brand. The paradox is that it took some major financial outsourcing to build a basic, high-quality Park Service visitor center. The danger of that trend isn't lost on Park Service old-timers.

"I think it is a serious mistake when the United States is too cheap to take care of its own heritage and basically becomes dependent on private donations," says Rogers, who isn't opposed to the particular partnership at Gettysburg. "A proud nation shouldn't do that."