The Cyclorama is an endangered species of building. Built to display 360-degree paintings, Cycloramas were popular in the 19th century when hundreds of looped paintings traveled through dozens of cycloramas across the States. Today, you can count the number of standing cycloramas in the US across the fingers of one hand. Blame the decline on anything more exciting than standing in the middle of a room, surrounded by historical paintings. But one of the precious few Cycloramas still standing was built in 1963 by celebrated modernist, Richard Neutra. The painting inside his cyclorama was eventually removed, restored and relocated to a new building, leaving the Neutra building vacant since 2008.
A building standing in the middle of one of the most historic battlefields in the country cannot hide. The empty building obstructs views of where the Union advanced at Gettysburg, although it was originally located there so that the painting would be as close as possible to the area it depicts. And this is probably a bad omen: When I read that bulldozers were heading toward the Neutra-designed cyclorama at Gettysburg, I took to the Internets to learn more about the project. When I visited Neutra’s posthumous website, I was greeted by a demolition countdown clock for another one of Neutra’s projects. Modern structures are at a dangerous age; if any of Neutra other projects are reading this, hide.
So now a different kind of battle is taking place at Gettysburg. The park service is fighting (in court) to restore a more historically accurate view of the battlefield and architects/historians are pushing back, insisting the park service would be tearing down another important chapter in history. A judge ordered that the park service must consider four options: leaving the building to rot in place, restoring and reusing the building, moving the building elsewhere or demolishing it. Even Richard Neutra’s son, Dion, believes that demolition will be recommended. Although he once considered chaining himself to the building, Dion now thinks that the best way to save the Cyclorama is to raise awareness of the building. So that’s what I’m doing.
Cycloramas do not carry the same historical weight as the Civil War, nor does any single architect. But we aren’t going to forget the Civil War anytime soon. Cycloramas and legacies of modern architects are much more fragile; when they intertwine with such a historical behemoth, it’s strange to think that agencies interested in historical preservation would fight for their erasure. History might be inconveniently located, but it’s history nonetheless.