This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Fred Esenwein
Richard Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and Visitor Center was part of the Mission 66 program, a design initiative by the National Park Service to improve park facilities across the country, often selecting notable modern architects from the period. Sarah Allaback’s book Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type provides a historical narrative of Neutra’s visitor center initially from the architect-client relationship and design schemes to the obstacles faced during construction as an architect-contractor relationship. Thus, she emphasizes how the project came to fruition and how it was built primarily through project reports. My presentation complements her work by focusing on the architecture and Neutra’s appropriation of battlefield history to make the visitor center a didactic building through photographs and construction drawings. Neutra’s design brought together historical and modern architectural and contextual references, thus giving it two orientations – one looking to the past and the other facing the present – that contributed to the vision of the Mission 66 program and the sanctity of Gettysburg National Military Park.
Often the aesthetic intention for these visitor centers was a Modern appearance, but given their dominating presence on highly significant historical sites that did not reject historical reference in their architecture nor historicism entirely. The design considered the historical landscape – its approximation to a historic grove, its proximity to the National Cemetery, and its relation to the Bloody Angle. The orientations and symbolism clearly had historical reverence. The roof observation deck and the ascent up the exterior ramp to the roof faced the Round Tops. The building’s incorporation of old conventional materials, namely stone, and increasingly conventional materials, namely metal finishes, enabled the visitor center to express the contextual and spatial qualities of the place without reducing the architecture to a reenactment of the past. Meanwhile, the Cyclorama, a nineteenth century painting, took on a new theatrical life in recreating Pickett’s Charge with light and sound effects. Finally, Neutra designed a rostrum oriented towards the cemetery where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. Its purpose of the rostrum was for public speeches and addresses regarding American society in its present and future state. Park visitors were able to encounter the past landscape while encountering Modern architecture.
The Cyclorama and Visitor Center opened in 1962, just before the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and demolished in 2013 – on the 150th anniversary. I do not intend to partake in the controversy of the demolition; rather I am more interested in to what degree did Neutra’s design appropriate the historical context of the battlefield. The general characterization of the Modern architecture is that it renounced historical references to distinguish itself from the popularity of nineteenth century historicist styles. I found Neutra’s Gettysburg project to challenge that premise. Neutra’s design was a tension between historical and local building contexts with his own Modern architecture aesthetic sensibilities. It was a Modernist building preserving the historical environment of Gettysburg.
Fred Esenwein is an assistant professor at Mississippi State University’s School of Architecture and a registered architect in Virginia. He is currently finishing his dissertation on the architectural discussion of simplicity in American design at the turn of the last century called, Simply American: Simplicity in Architectural Arrangement, Construction, and Standards, 1820-1920 from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania and the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture at Taliesin, Wisconsin. He also worked for Mitchell/Matthews Architects in Charlottesville, Virginia, on projects for the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University.