SAH Blog

  • The Loss of a Major Monument at Gettysburg

    Apr 3, 2013

    by Richard Longstreth

    In late February and early March, the former Visitor Center and Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg National Military Park was unceremoniously demolished. Designed in 1959 and constructed over the next three years, the edifice was the most ambitious work of its kind in the National Park Service’s ten-year, $1+ billion Mission 66 program, which sought to address the needs of soaring visitation. The building was also the only Mission 66 project designed by an architectural firm that enjoyed international renown at that time, Neutra & Alexander. Richard Neutra considered the commission one of the most significant in his long career and fully immersed himself in all aspects of conceptualization and bringing the scheme to execution. Until its destruction, it was arguably the most important non-residential design Neutra realized and among the most accomplished of his buildings generally.

    photo by Matthew Amster

    Neutra’s devotion to the project stemmed not merely from creating a work at one of the nation’s most hallowed historical sites that would draw many thousands of people annually, but foremost from the opportunity to honor his hero, Abraham Lincoln. Just as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered a short distance away, pleaded for national reconciliation, so Neutra saw his building as a place where leaders from the developing world could offer their visions of global peace. The building was intended not just as a facility where visitors could get oriented, peruse historic artifacts, and view Paul Philippoteaux immense cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge, but also as a commemorative monument, where people could draw connections between lessons learned from the battle and the Civil War more broadly and the imperative of co-existence at the height of the Cold War.

    By the 1990s, Park Service officials had cultivated a very different perspective. Spearheaded by the park’s then-superintendent, plans were developed to remove what he regarded as an offensive intrusion on a key site, close to what has often been called the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” The fact that Park Service historians had determined some decades earlier that the site was ideal for the visitor center because of that proximity was summarily dismissed. Plans called for a new, much larger visitor center away from important portions of the battlefield and a “restoration” of the “High Water Mark” site to its 1863 state. Even with the building’s removal, the battlefield’s historic landscape can never be so restored, however, as it holds a rich array of hundreds of monuments, to which more continue to be added, and one of the park’s early drives – it is far more a memorial landscape than a raw battlefield. The superintendent made no effort to evaluate the building’s significance; instead he secured the astounding determination from the then-Pennsylvania state historic preservation officer that it was not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places – a determination quickly supported by the then-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

    In 1997, SAH took the initiative for a more objective and informed assessment, requesting that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation pursue a determination of eligibility opinion by the keeper of the National Register. After the keeper found the building met applicable criteria in September 1998, SAH sponsored a nomination (written by Christine Madrid French and me) of the building as a national historic landmark. The following May the Advisory Council refuted the superintendent’s contention that the building lacked historical significance, but argued that it was a matter of degree. Neutra’s architecture did not match the transcendent importance of the battlefield as a historic site. This either-or line of reasoning ignored the role of the building as a major, mid-twentieth-century component of the park’s commemorative landscape continuum. At the end of the year, the Park Service’s National Historic Landmark Committee (the professional reviewing body) was nearly unanimous that the building should be so designated. However, in a very rare move, the committee’s recommendation was rejected by the National Park Service Advisory Board, the deciding body. The unstated, but apparently central, reason was fear that retaining the building might impede progress on a pioneering venture to raise private-sector funds for the new visitor center. An appeal to reconsider the decision was made in 2004, but was turned down, again the victim of politics.

    During the past decade the Recent Past Preservation Network sued the Park Service over failure to prepare an adequate environmental impact assessment of the demolition. After years of legal maneuvering, a new assessment was completed in 2012, although it offered far from a evaluation of options. Once the report was issued, the loss of the Neutra building seemed imminent. The fact that the building was an intrusion in the park had become codified within the Park Service hierarchy. Unfortunately, RPPN never pursued the contrary view that demolition would constitute an impairment, an act in direct opposition to the Park Service’s mandate in its founding legislation.

    Many Park Service personnel have long disagreed with their agency’s prevailing view, and some of their concerns have resulted in positive actions. Several other important visitor centers have been saved, including one designed by a then unknown Romaldo Giurgola at Wright Brothers National memorial in Kitty Hawk as well as Neutra’s Painted Desert Visitor Center at Petrified Forest National park in Arizona. Mounting inconsistencies in assessment of Mission 66 projects for compliance purposes led to the commission of a major study of the program’s legacy, resulting in a definitive scholarly volume (Ethan Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (2007). The understanding of and respect for the mid-twentieth century’s contribution to the parks is far greater that it was fifteen years ago. Still the loss of the Neutra building, especially under the auspices of an agency long considered as a national leader in historic preservation practice, and the condoning of that decision by others then associated with the National Trust, Advisory Council, and Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office underscores the fragility of work from the post-World War II era even as its popularity is on the ascent.

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  • Former U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Saved as Heritage Building

    Barbara Lamprecht
    Apr 3, 2013
    Designed by the partnership of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, the former U.S. Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, has much in common with the Cyclorama. Both were prestigious commissions acquitting complex briefs scrutinized by powerful branches of government. Both were designed in the 1950s and completed in the early 1960s.

    They shared the same structural engineers, Parker and Zehnder. The strong forms of the Cyclorama and the Embassy, intended as monumental expressions of mid-century American confidence and prowess, were both eventually emptied, their functions moved elsewhere, to await an uncertain fate.

    However, in contrast to the actions of the National Park Service, a group of Karachi citizens led by the Institute of Architects, Pakistan (IAP) succeeded in having the property listed on December 17, 2012 as a heritage building by the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. Under the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, the structure is protected from demolition and any external alteration. It will be sold, rehabilitated and adaptively re-used.

    The embassy complex is located on a pivotal corner in a smart area of downtown Karachi, opposite leafy Frere Park, Frere Hall, and the Sind Club, all developed by the British in the 19th century. The east-facing building servicing main embassy duties comprises a large sleek rectangular glass and concrete four-story structure, its horizontality underscored by bands of louver-clad clerestory windows. Its full-height glass entry façade expressed a transparent democracy, a characteristic typical of Cold War Embassy design. The north façade features a series of louvers fronting glass windows, a strategy Neutra began employing in the late 1940s.

    To the west, a broad lawn fronts a one-story masonry warehouse linked to the main building by an interstitial two-story building. The warehouse is roofed with an array of nine thin-shell barrel vaults. The foot of the eastern most vault curves into the large reflecting pool terminating the angled main lobby, symbolically integrating the warehouse to the larger composition. The team’s careful distribution of landscape elements included reflecting pools, areas for prayer, water channels, and ablution basins for Islamic employees that percolated throughout the compound, even reappearing at the curved entrance driveway. While reflecting pools are a well-known Neutra trademark, seen to great effect at the Cyclorama, here they were even more important because Neutra well understood the significance of water in Islamic architecture and the need for ritual cleansing.

    There was a tortured path through planning and completion. On the heels of the “Red Plot” of the unrealized Eylsian Park Height housing project, Neutra had to defend his loyalty to his adopted land. Alexander’s protest at learning that payment would be tied to the unstable rupee almost lost them the commission. Construction was no easier, in part undertaken by local Pakistani workers unaccustomed to American methods and materials, which were hard to procure in any case. The concrete mix was so erratic that Alexander feared structural failure. Yet a terrible irony awaited the Embassy. During its construction, Pakistan moved its capital inland to Islamabad, 700 miles to the north, away from the vulnerable coast and Raj associations. In 1966, the Embassy was reclassified as a Consulate. Though “hardened” with new security measures, the building could not sufficiently withstand the terrorist attacks that began in 2002. It was vacated in 2011.

    While the U.S. demolished, Pakistan preserved.

    Barbara Lamprecht, Lamprecht ArchiTEXTural

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    Mar 29, 2013
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