Persevering preservationists: Cyclorama Building gets a reprieve
A decade ago, Christine Madrid French, a one-woman modern architecture-saving dervish, landed on the cover of C-Ville for her attempts to save Gettysburg’s Cyclorama Center, the 1961 visitor’s building designed by noted modernist architect Richard Neutra and his partner Robert Alexander. It appears Madrid has finally succeeded, as a federal court in Washington has halted the Park Service’s demolition plans.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan ruled that the U.S. National Park Service failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, before deciding to tear down the building and ordered the agency to consider alternatives. A year earlier, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay also ruled in favor of French and company, ordering the Park Service to re-think its plans.
“Two federal judges have now looked at this case, and both have concluded that the Park Service must comply with federal law before taking any action,” says lawyer Matthew Adams with San Francisco-based law firm of Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal LLP, which represented French and the architect's son Dion Neutra, pro bono. Adams adds that he hopes the ruling will end of years of litigation and launch a discussion on how to preserve the building.
In 1996, National Park Service officials announced they were going to demolish the building, which was built to accommodate a massive “cyclorama” of the famous Civil War battle, a 400-by-50 foot circular image depicting Pickett’s Charge by French artist Paul Philippoteaux. Despite a move of the painting to the new Gettysburg National Park Museum and Visitor Center in 2008, French and other preservationists argued that the unusual original structure was worth saving. French points out that the Gettysburg’s is one of only four "cyclorama" buildings in the United States. It was one of the largest commissions for Neutra, a master of glass and steel whose works include the Lovell House in Los Angeles and the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs.
“This ruling recognizes that great modern architecture is an important historic resource, and that it should be valued and protected under federal law,” says French, who was also famously featured in a Hook cover story for trying to protect Charlottesville's modernist gems, including U-Hall, the Import Car Store, and the Terrace Cinema, the last of which was demolished in 2007 as part of the proposed $30.5 million Hillsdale Drive Extension.
“We hope they revisit the idea of reusing the building,” says Dion Neutra. “My father’s vision for the building was to address the notion of reconciliation, as Lincoln did in his Gettysburg Address.”
However, as French points out, the building may still be in jeopardy.
“Despite this favorable ruling, the future of the building is not secure,” says French, who encourages anyone interested in advocating a re-use for the building to visit architect Jason Hart’s website at modernpreservation.com, where several possibilities for re-use have been outlined. One can also visit French’s website on the Cyclorama Building at mission66.com/cyclorama.