At Last, a Gettysburg Redress

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

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.)

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company