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The historic site where people can learn about the Battle of Gettysburg is now the setting for a contemporary fight. There's a new visitors center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and it features the 1884 cyclorama painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. That means the painting's old home sits dark and vacant, and the battle rages over whether that building should be torn down or preserved. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Alex Schmidt reports.
ALEX SCHMIDT: Walking up the spiral ramps of the old Cyclorama Building, you have to watch your step.
U: Oh, there's something in our way.
SCHMIDT: It's pitch black. Strewn across the floor are tarps and large moving tubes. The building's gallery has been empty since the cyclorama painting was moved to its new home a year ago. Next year, the National Park Service plans to demolish this building. Park service spokesperson Katie Lawhon says the building is simply in the wrong place.
SCHMIDT: This building intrudes on the historic landscape to the Gettysburg battlefield. You literally can't fully understand the fighting of the battle, in particular the way the Union Army held this high ridge, called Cemetery Ridge, with this building sitting in the middle of everything.
SCHMIDT: Nine hundred seventy soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured on the ground that's under and around where this building is now. Some preservationists consider the structure, designed in 1961, to be a modern intrusion on hallowed ground. There's just one problem with the plan for demolition. The Cyclorama Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Cyclorama Building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but is not actually listed.]
SCHMIDT: There's nothing else that we ever did in our 80-year history of the firm that compares to it.
SCHMIDT: Dion Neutra is the son of the building's architect, Vienna-born Richard Neutra who passed away in 1970. Richard Neutra is considered one of the most important figures in modernist architecture. His son has filed a lawsuit against the Park Service in order to try and save what he says is a structure historically important in its own way.
SCHMIDT: It's the only example of our work for the federal government east of the Mississippi. And it also happens to be one of the most favorite projects of my father because of his origin as an immigrant having been chosen to design what he called the shrine of the nation.
SCHMIDT: The battle that turned the tide of the Civil War versus a rare non-residential work by one of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Competing visions of history are common, says Seth Bruggeman, assistant professor of history at Temple University. He points to George Washington's birthplace in Virginia where a replica of Washington's home was built in the 1930s in the wrong place.
SCHMIDT: The question is what do you do then? Do you destroy it? Do you get rid of it? Do you move it? But the building has become burned into the memories of people who want to commemorate Washington as part of the Washington experience. And so to destroy the building is to destroy a part of public memory that may not be relevant to Washington, but is part of how people remember him.
SCHMIDT: So the commemoration, in effect, becomes part of the history it's commemorating. That's Dion Neutra's argument. He says his father's Cyclorama Building was part of a nationwide effort to attract visitors to National Parks in the 1960s.
SCHMIDT: Isn't the fact that the Park Service - in the '60s, when they built this building - in their wisdom decided that this was what they should do, isn't that something that needs to be respected instead of just ignored?
SCHMIDT: But there's a problem with too much commemoration, says Professor Seth Bruggeman.
SCHMIDT: If you commemorate every way of remembering Gettysburg, then you leave no room for the visitor.
SCHMIDT: In fact, the battlefield is already dotted with more than a thousand monuments erected by veterans' organizations to commemorate the different units that fought at Gettysburg. In his lawsuit, Dion Neutra is demanding that the Park Service conduct a thorough investigation of how the building might be saved or reused. He even proposes moving it. But since the structure is made of poured concrete, the Park Service says that's unlikely. The lawsuit awaits a judge's decision. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt.
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