This morning I photographed the final stage of demolition of Richard Neutra’s 1961 visitor center at Gettysburg. The building was commissioned by the National Park Service to be the flagship structure of its Mission 66 campaign, a hugely ambitious program to expand and modernize its park system and visitor facilities for the 50th anniversary of the agency. The distinctive cylindrical drum of the building was designed to house the Cyclorama, an immense circular panorama painting of Pickett’s charge finished in 1884.
I’m not a huge fan of high modernism, but Neutra’s building was no doubt the most interesting and significant architectural commission in the history of the NPS. It was a paradoxical program from the start: a signature modernist building designed to house an obsolete Victorian painted entertainment. But in a way, that paradox perfectly expressed the idea of Mission 66, which blended an ethic of preservation with the goal of bringing the past into the contemporary world. The Park Service carefully chose the location of the building, and Neutra made an extraordinarily site-specific design. Visitors who entered the drum and saw the Cyclorama came back outside through a portico that gave a dramatic view of the very landscape depicted in the painting; to accommodate the office space and other functions of the building Neutra created a long low wing that hugged the ridge line. The circulation within the building was both dramatic and smooth, and the spaces managed to be airy and eloquent and understated all at the same time.
I spent part of the day discussing the demolition at a conference sponsored by Gettysburg College and the NPS on “The Future of Civil War History.” I see the building as a monument, a chapter in the commemorative history of Gettysburg, much like the High Water Mark monument nearby that will never be torn down. But of course Neutra’s monument was immensely more difficult and costly to maintain. The building had some major maintenance problems from the get-go, and there have been charges and counter-charges about who is to blame. Neutra’s son and fans largely blame the NPS, while the the NPS pins the blame squarely on the design. I don’t know enough to enter this debate. I also understand the limitations on the NPS with its perennial budget constraints. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater had a major structural flaw in its cantilever system, but the trust in charge of the building had the resources to fix it, at great cost of time and money. Not so for the NPS, whether it was their fault or the architect’s for the technical failures of the building.
Still, I wish the NPS hadn’t foresaken the very building it once celebrated as its flagship for the future. The whole episode was a lot like a divorce, with a similar ugliness. And now we dispose of the remains as mere debris, without any attempt at ceremony.
As Neutra’s grand monument comes down and dies, I think we should pay our last respects. A great deal of thought, creativity, imagination, enthusiasm, and just plain hard work went into this building. We should honor its life, and deliver a eulogy.