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Old Gettysburg Visitor Center and Cyclorama Center

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1958–1962, Neutra and Alexander with Thaddeus Longstreth. 97 Taneytown Rd.
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The former Visitor Center was constructed by the National Park Service as a part of its “Mission 66” program to bring national parks up to appropriate standards for its fiftieth anniversary and here to incorporate offices, an interpretive display area relating to the battle of Gettysburg, and a round room in which an 1883 cyclorama of the battle could be housed and displayed. Instead of the old log cabin model, the Park Service commissioned architects of international stature with an eye to using modern architecture to achieve symbolic expression of the commemorated event. In this instance, the Park Service made the daring choice of Los Angeles modernist Richard Neutra in the hope that a foreign-born architect could crystallize this central modern experience. Though Neutra probably did not know the work of Gettysburg veteran Frank Furness, whose fiery architecture, forged in Pennsylvania's industrial culture, led to the ahistorical architecture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, his building strongly resonates with the functional expression of the region's factories that Furness incorporated into his designs. The cyclorama was housed in a great cast-cement drum articulated with subtle flutings that recall classical civic architecture. From it extends the flaring volume of an auditorium extending into a long wing that is the flow diagram of the great ramp that elevates the visitor to a height from which to experience the battlefield as General George Meade would have seen it from his nearby headquarters. The materials, from the divided yet unified local stone wall at the end to the great fluted drum, express the event in ways that a literal re-creation of the headquarters could not.

The play of light on the monumental exterior volumes captures with remarkable force the solemnity of the place both as battleground and memorial. Within, Neutra struck another not inharmonious note, recalling the lyrical commercial spaces of Morris Lapidus's Miami hotels in the floating stair hung by slender aluminum rods that rises to the cyclorama level. Jarring though the juxtaposition is, it reminds us of the essential link between the mass battle of 1863 and the mass culture of the present. It is a remarkable building that may shortly be demolished by the National Park Service as they seek to barter the nation's architectural and cultural heritage for the proverbial pot of porridge.

The new Visitor Center (2002–2008, Cooper Robertson and Partners; 1195 Baltimore Pike) represents the swing of the pendulum from contemporary to faux with barn-red structures at the scale of a shopping center.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas
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Citation

George E. Thomas, "Old Gettysburg Visitor Center and Cyclorama Center", [Gettysburg, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/PA-02-AD6.4.

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 374-375.

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