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Who Chooses History?

The National Park Service Has Decided That L.A. Architect Richard Neutra's Landmark Cyclorama Center--Which Has Stood at the Gettysburg Battlefield for More Than 40 Years--Now Detracts From the Historic Nature of the Site. Just Months Before Its Possible Closing, a Bigger Question Remains:

June 27, 2004|Mark Rozzo | 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.

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