Who Chooses History?

Mark Rozzo is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a regular contributor to The Times' Book Review.

Sitting at the dining-room table of his Silver Lake home, 2,300 miles from the hallowed battlefield where part of his father’s legacy is under siege, Los Angeles architect Dion Neutra, still sprightly at 77, allows his voice to escalate in mild exasperation. “There should be a national will to save these buildings,” he says. “It shouldn’t have to be a one-man crusade.”

Silence--punctuated by birdsong--fills the home he helped build with his famous father, the late Richard Neutra, in 1950. The understated dwelling, with its sleek lines and soothing reflecting pool, is known in the ever-expanding Neutra literature as the Reunion House, a modernist oasis in the big city and the keystone of a grouping of lovingly preserved Neutra homes on, appropriately enough, Neutra Place.

Other Neutra buildings haven’t been so lucky. “Lost Neutras,” Dion calls them, as if they were actual family members, including the stunning curvilinear Northridge estate his dad designed for director Josef von Sternberg in the 1930s, leveled in 1971 to make way for condos; or the Fine Arts Building at Cal State Northridge, demolished in 1997 because of earthquake damage; or, more recently and shocking, the Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, bought in February 2002 and summarily razed by the owner. The teardown provoked widespread outrage, coast-to-coast newspaper coverage and an impassioned appeal from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which warned that such disregard for “museum-quality” buildings has, in our McMansion-happy age, become an epidemic.


Neutra spends much of his time trying to protect the legacy of his father, who died in 1970 and was declared by the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to be second only to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of international reputation. At least six Neutra structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and others are tagged as Los Angeles historical cultural monuments, or on the rolls of preservation groups from Pennsylvania to Texas.

Yet his biggest preservation battle is being fought far from California, in Gettysburg, Pa., against an unlikely foe: the National Park Service. The Cyclorama Center at the Gettysburg National Military Park, the shrine-like battlefield visited by nearly 2 million tourists a year, is perhaps Richard Neutra’s greatest public commission and the finest example of his work east of the Mississippi. Yet it’s slated for demolition in early 2007.

Is the Park Service, as some critics suggest, railroading the Cyclorama out of existence? Is there anything the fabled architect’s son can do to save it from becoming yet another lost Neutra?

The Cyclorama Center takes its name from the 360-degree panoramic painting, called “The Battle of Gettysburg,” that it houses. Until a few years ago, hardly anyone gave the building much thought. True, when it was built in 1962, a park historian objected to its siting as the battlefield’s official visitor center at Ziegler’s Grove on Cemetery Hill. Near there, Union forces repulsed Confederate Gen. George Pickett’s forces during the climax of the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. And, in 1977, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that, on second thought, perhaps the modern facility should be relocated to a less central site. But for the majority of Gettysburg’s 7,490 residents and carloads of pilgrims, the curiously futuristic facility was taken for granted as a modern contribution to a commemorative landscape famous for its well-traveled macadam lanes, its erector-set observation towers and its granite and marble monuments. Most people had no clue that the Cyclorama Center was designed by Richard Neutra, or knew anything about the Viennese-born architect whose luminous structures have been called gems of 20th century American architecture.

But since the late 1990s, when redevelopment plans were hatched and Cyclorama supporters began pushing for landmark status to protect the building, the center has been the focal point of a skirmish pitting preservationists against one another in a debate about what is “historic.” Nestled in its leafy grove like a proud, if weather-beaten, relic of the Jet Age, Neutra’s Cyclorama has become the prime target of a campaign to restore Cemetery Hill and much of the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. At the same time, the Cyclorama Center has become the poster child of a nascent movement to save notable buildings of the recent past from premature destruction.

As Dion Neutra admits, saving the Cyclorama Center is a long shot. The not-so-affectionate nicknames that detractors occasionally tossed around have begun to stick: “the gas tank” and “Starship Enterprise.” The park’s current superintendent, who vows to reduce the 35,271-square-foot structure to rubble, calls it “the world’s largest air filter,” because of an air duct system located behind the painting.

“There’s some really just dumb stuff going on here,” Supt. John Latschar said during a tour of the aging facility.

With his graying beard and wide-brimmed ranger’s hat, Latschar has the commanding aura of a mud-spattered brigadier general. “Only a Southern California architect would put on a flat roof to protect a work of art in Pennsylvania [a region of high rain and snowfall],” he said, ticking off the building’s various shortcomings. The enormous mechanized sliding-glass doors don’t work. The spiraling indoor ramp leading to the painting is too steep and outdated to comply with current handicap codes. The Park Service let the high-maintenance reflecting pools dry up eons ago.

The stainless-steel, cage-like rostrum, designed for visiting speakers from around the world, was used only once, on dedication day, Nov. 19, 1962 (the 99th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), because the Sons of Union Veterans preferred to make their annual observances at Gettysburg National Cemetery across the street where Lincoln delivered his speech. And hairline fractures in the concrete rotunda, the building’s salient feature, cause moisture to be sucked inside, creating unmanageable fluctuations in humidity and endangering the very thing the building is intended to protect: the eye-popping 359-by-27-foot wraparound cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge, executed by French journeyman painter Paul Philippoteaux in 1884 and declared a National Historic Object in 1944. (Think Victorian IMAX.)

During the tour, scaffolds covered water-stained and flaking portions of the painting, which once wowed Victorian audiences as a Barnumesque midway attraction and is said to have caused veterans to weep with its apocalyptic depiction of exploding caissons and dying men. A crew was hard at work in the opening stages of preserving the massive canvas--the largest undertaking of its kind in U.S. history. Panel by panel, the unabashedly triumphant work will be meticulously repaired. Plans call for the panorama to be reinstalled nearby in a mammoth $68.3-million complex planned for a nearly 100-acre tract of mostly pristine ground deemed by developer Robert A. Kinsley as “less hallowed” than Ziegler’s Grove.

In Dion Neutra’s effort to save his father’s building, the start of this ambitious restoration is akin to the shots fired on Ft. Sumter--the juncture at which a long-simmering war of opinions turns hot. Or perhaps it’s Vicksburg, when the struggle becomes a lost cause. At any rate, the Cyclorama Center’s countdown clock is ticking loudly. The Park Service entered into a cooperative development agreement with Kinsley’s private Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation in June 2000. The painting restoration is moving into its most intense phase, and the Cyclorama’s gallery could be boarded up for good as early as March, when groundbreaking for the updated facility is scheduled to begin. Its gallery would make the Cyclorama Center redundant.

Latschar, a Vietnam Veteran with a doctorate in American history, is a shrewd and articulate campaigner for the new plan, which he helped write, and for the removal of the Cyclorama Center. Standing outside the building, which seems to hover like a spectral apparition in Ziegler’s Grove, the superintendent brought his argument back to what he considers the structure’s dubious provenance: Mission 66, an expansive Eisenhower Administration initiative to improve the infrastructure in America’s national parks after World War II. Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis was completed with Mission 66 dollars, as were more than 100 other visitor centers. Latschar is not a fan of what he considers these often obtrusive structures. “I hope the Park Service is never again faced with a program of that magnitude because the architects ran amok,” he said.

But for architectural historian Christine Madrid French, president of the international nonprofit Recent Past Preservation Network, Mission 66 was a heroic program, and the Cyclorama was one of its flagships. French, a Park Service veteran, contends that purposeful neglect, not design flaws, are the cause of the Cyclorama’s problems. “You don’t care about it, so why spend extra money on it? Then it’s falling apart, and the party that wants to demolish it points out all the deficiencies.”

Latschar concedes that little money has been invested in the Cyclorama. A 1996 Park Service study estimated that at least $11 million would be needed to rehab the structure, which cost $959,603 to build in 1962. One reason for the decay, Latschar suggested, is that the park administration never embraced Richard Neutra’s vision in the first place. “Mr. Neutra had the idea that this would be his monument to Lincoln and freedom and all that stuff,” he said. “The problem is, he never listened to his clients, because we did not want a monument, we wanted a functional building. And, as a result, we got neither.”

Dion Neutra counters that, as with all Neutra projects, “interaction was extremely high. Down to the last stone on the battlefield, everything was discussed. Mr. Latschar wasn’t present at the time.” The Neutra firm, he adds, received the blessing of the Park Service for its design and was never contacted about maintenance or design problems once the building was dedicated.

Far from bringing a grandiose vision to Ziegler’s Grove, Neutra turned in a low-key, unsentimental structure--of concrete, steel and Pennsylvania sandstone--designed not only to display Philippoteaux’s panorama near the site of the action it depicts, but intended as an enduring monument to the Gettysburg Address. “Lincoln was not a victor-speechmaker,” Richard Neutra wrote. “He was a prophet, and his grand text still resounds.” Like Lincoln’s famous speech, the Abraham Lincoln Shrine of the Nation (as Neutra subtitled the Cyclorama) did not attempt to add to or detract from what those brave soldiers did at Gettysburg.

French, the architectural historian who has been called the “Saint of Parkitecture,” has helped Dion Neutra generate more than 1,100 letters of support for the Cyclorama. L.A. architect and Walt Disney Concert Hall creator Frank Gehry, for example, wrote that Neutra’s building “reflects the highest ideals of his own time, and deserves the highest appreciation of ours.” And the American Institute of Architects has described the Cyclorama as “one of the most important buildings constructed by the [Park Service] during the 20th century.”

“It’s a tragedy,” Neutra says, considering the potential fate of the Cyclorama and other Neutra masterworks already lost to the wrecking ball, threatened by development, sullied by neglect, brought low by mud, consumed by fire (as the Goodman House in San Bernardino was last October), or morphed into Frankenstein disarray through remodeling. “They take years to mature,” he says with a rueful laugh, “and that’s when we tear them down.”

But for many historians, the Cyclorama is simply a misplaced modern artifact. “It is sad to lose a major architect’s work,” Gabor Boritt, a Lincoln scholar and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, said over lunch at his handsome stone farmhouse, a field hospital during the Gettysburg battle. “The Cyclorama is beautiful, but the primary goal here is to display history. We’re talking about taking a building and killing it. I understand that it’s bad. But this place deserves to be as close to the reality of history as we can make it.”

The Hungarian-born professor speaks eloquently of Gettysburg as “sacred ground.” It’s where an estimated 51,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured during the three-day battle that ended July 3, 1863. What Boritt calls “the central moment of American history” has, he says, an inarguable right-of-way over a Mission 66 building, and it’s altogether fitting that Ziegler’s Grove be remodeled to Civil War-era specifications.

Battlefield restoration--the practice of re-creating period landscapes--has gained momentum as Civil War preservation has gained momentum, fighting to keep Wal-Marts and gated communities away from threatened battlefields. Meanwhile, for many Americans, the Civil War has evolved from history to leisure pursuit. Reenactors, whose activities were frowned on when the Cyclorama was built, now swarm the nation’s military parks in pursuit of what they call a “period rush.” They’re a core battlefield constituency, and a modern building in their simulated 19th century universe is a buzz kill.

But is it so hard to envision 1863 at today’s Ziegler’s Grove? And, if so, is it the Cyclorama’s fault? The structure is virtually invisible when the surrounding red oaks are in leaf. Its observation terrace--where pilgrims can take in a one-of-a-kind view of the field of Pickett’s Charge--rises barely 20 feet off the ground. What about those other monuments, and all those idling SUVs? What about the General Pickett’s All-U-Can-Eat Buffet Restaurant and the KFC over on adjacent Steinwehr Avenue?

Dion Neutra has no quibble with sacred ground, but, he says, “I call it revisionist when you smooth things over and pretend that that’s what Ziegler’s Grove always looked like--as if this building never existed.” Can we second-guess, Neutra asks, how our forebears chose to memorialize American history? After all, the veterans themselves transformed a scene of carnage into a genteel memorial park, and the greater Ziegler’s Grove area has had its own rather full history since the battle, having hosted an observation tower, a park road, an auto dump and, as Neutra likes to point out, millions of Cyclorama visitors. Seen in this light, the Cyclorama isn’t so much a desecration as a marked improvement.

Historian Boritt sits on the board of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation. It’s the private wing of the private-public partnership that plans to build the new 139,000-square-foot museum and visitor-center complex designed to resemble a high-tech Pennsylvania Dutch farm, complete with two theaters, snack bar and a bookstore and a museum store, storage for the park’s 38,000 artifacts and 700,000-piece archive, and an updated Cyclorama gallery, in which the restored painting will be hung according to the latest technology.

The architects tapped for the new Gettysburg visitor center also designed Celebration, Disney’s ersatz picket-fence community in Florida. In contrast to the urbane Cyclorama, the foundation’s complex will be a sunny rebuke to Richard Neutra’s credo that “the best of the old cannot be truly imitated.”

The park’s current museum (next to the Cyclorama Center and also tagged for demolition) is a homespun affair, featuring the semifamous Electric Map, a twinkling midcentury curiosity that appeals more to connoisseurs of roadside Americana than Civil War buffs or even today’s “Shrek”-saturated kids. (By the way, those birds you hear aren’t part of the canned narration, they’re starlings, nesting in the acoustic-tiled ceiling.) Perusing the museum’s smorgasbord of swords, knapsacks and Springfield rifles (variously threatened by rust and “red rot” leather damage from poor climate control), you’d barely know slavery existed in the United States. “We need something here like the Holocaust Museum,” Boritt argues. “We need something that’s going to grab people.”

The plan, so far, has certainly grabbed people, but not always because of the tantalizing interpretive opportunities it presents. When the public-private development plan first surfaced in the late 1990s, the initiative sparked protests from Gettysburg’s borough council and “rubber-tomahawk” merchants, who feared losing tourist dollars to the proposed behemoth. Its budget was initially set at $39 million, but it eventually ballooned to $95 million, including, among other things, the cost of the new visitor center, digitizing the museum’s collection and a maintenance endowment. The strong whiff of commercialism (Kinsley, chairman of the Gettysburg foundation, is a developer from nearby York, Pa.) also alarmed Civil War groups, provoking the national chairman of the Civil War Round Table Associates to denounce the plan as a scheme “to rape the landscape of America’s premier Civil War battlefield.”

Yet according to Latschar, who insists the venture will not generate a dime in profit for Kinsley, “wiser heads prevailed,” and the public-private development plan was finalized in 2000. Most Civil War preservationists patched things up with the foundation, satisfied that hallowed ground--at least Ziegler’s Grove, home of the Cyclorama--would be “restored.” Even so, you can still hear grumblings that the opposition wasn’t so much won over as outflanked. “There’s a saying in Gettysburg,” a local merchant said recently: “ ‘The Park Service is going to do whatever the Park Service wants to do--period.’ ”

French, Dion Neutra’s able lieutenant, traveled to Gettysburg to participate in public meetings, where she encountered similar intransigence, as well as considerable regional bias: “I talked to Park Service people who said, ‘Well, you know, Neutra was a European. But worse, he was from California.’ ”

“They are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who like cutesy vernacular style,” Neutra adds.

The skirmish over the Cyclorama Center’s landmark status involved a tangle of federal and Park Service agencies. In late 1998, the Cyclorama was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation subsequently ruled that it “must yield” to battlefield restoration--a ruling that effectively derailed the plan to place it on the National Register. In December 1999, the Park Service System Advisory Board’s Landmarks Committee endorsed the Cyclorama’s nomination for landmark status, but that endorsement was short-lived. It was overruled two days later by the full advisory board. Land for the new complex, meanwhile, was sold to the foundation before the Cyclorama’s landmark status was clarified. Neutra and French, it seemed, might as well have been trying to slow Sherman’s march. “Whatever we tried to do,” says Neutra, who traveled to Gettysburg only to be stonewalled by the administration there, “it was like gnats biting at an elephant.”

Given the overwhelming forces deployed against him, why doesn’t Dion Neutra just put out a white flag and move on?

For starters, the Gettysburg foundation has “identified” only $54 million of the $75 million it intends to raise before groundbreaking can begin. And the date of that groundbreaking was recently pushed back from fall 2004 to March. Modernist preservation associations, meanwhile, are busy cultivating appreciation for the not-so-old treasures in our backyards, and the cachet--not to mention asking prices--of vintage Neutras continues to escalate. French, for her part, maintains that the Cyclorama Center has life left in it as, say, a museum or archive. “I never think of a preservation fight as a lost cause,” she says, “because if the building is still standing, there’s always a chance.”

What about picking up the Cyclorama and moving it? Sounds far-fetched, but the Maxwell House in Los Angeles, a Neutra unwittingly bought for a teardown, may eventually be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere. “If the folks in L.A. feel strongly about it,” Boritt said, “I’ll make a contribution to fit into my means. To save the building someplace else.”

Waiting at the Reunion House for the latest dispatch from Gettysburg, Dion Neutra fires off another round of e-mails and faxes--to friends, preservationists, even the White House. He’d prefer to see the Cyclorama stay right where it is. “It’s never over,” he says, “until it’s over.”