Demolition begins on Gettysburg's Cyclorama building

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GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK -- Steve Redding was upset Tuesday as a battering ram smashed into the concrete base of the Cyclorama building, which until five years ago housed a huge circular painting depicting Confederate Gen. George Pickett's "charge" against Union troops July 3, 1863.

"I'm not happy about this demolition at all. I was against it from the beginning," said Mr. Redding, 59, who lives a few miles west of here and visited the old Cyclorama building many times before it closed in 2008.

"I understand the Park Service says this is progress, but if they'd spent a few million on repairs to the old building, they wouldn't have had to spend $40 million on the new visitors center," where the painting is now housed.

Asbestos removal at the Cyclorama building -- a round structure that opened in 1962, in preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle -- began in late February. Actual demolition began Saturday and will take another few weeks to complete.

On Tuesday, the structure appeared to be about 75 percent demolished, with bulldozers and heavy trucks hauling away large chunks of concrete.

The Park Service wants to restore the historic Civil War battlefield as closely as possible to the way it looked July 1-3, 1863, when thousands of Northern and Southern troops died or were wounded in what became the pivotal battle of the war. That meant the old, empty Cyclorama building had to come down.

It sits on North Cemetery Ridge, which was near the center of the Union army's battle line July 2-3, 1863. It's part of an area of high ground that formed a long, curving battle line called the "fishhook," where Federal troops set up their defenses and held off repeated Confederate attacks, finally forcing them to retreat back to Virginia that July 4.

The site looks down on what is known as the "high-water mark" of the battle, the closest the Southerners came to overrunning the Northern defenses.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had moved his troops into Pennsylvania in late June 1863, aiming for a knockout battle that he hoped would force President Abraham Lincoln to end the war and grant independence to the South.

Mr. Redding said, "I understand that federal officials want to restore the battlefield, but then why don't they get rid of the McDonald's fast-food place, and the Friendly's, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken," restaurants that are located nearby on Steinwehr Avenue, just 100 yards from the old Cyclorama?

When the building demolition began Saturday, several dozen people came to watch and take pictures.

"It's an exciting and historic day," Littlestown resident Jerry Coates, who'd long favored tearing the building down, told The Associated Press. Some people considered it an eyesore.

But there were only a handful of cars in the nearby parking lot Tuesday, as a heavy rain fell. Among the observers were Rob and Lana Kittredge from East Berlin, a few miles to the north.

"It's a nice piece of 1960s pop art, but it doesn't belong on a battlefield," Ms. Kittredge said. The couple are National Park Service volunteers who scout the military park for downed trees and branches or stone walls and fences that need repairs.

"I have nothing against '60s architecture," she said. "It was a unique building, but it just doesn't fit on Cemetery Ridge."

The building should be gone by late April, park service spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said. That's important because the park service wants to restore the site in time for the influx of thousands of visitors in June and July to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.

The demolition is being done "to preserve and protect the battlefield and to improve the public's understanding of what happened here and why it is important today," she said.

The $563,000 to demolish the building is coming from the Gettysburg Foundation, which works with the park service to preserve the national military park.

The foundation is raising money for another aspect of the restoration work -- returning five monuments that honor military regiments that fought here to their original sites on the battlefield, plus adding some historic fencing and removing one parking lot.

The huge Cyclorama painting is a major draw for the 3 million visitors and tourists who come here each year. Since 2008 the circular painting, which shows intricate detail of the Union and Southern forces clashing, has been in the new National Park Visitors Center and Museum, about a mile from the old site.

The painting is 377 feet long, 42 feet high and weighs more than 12 tons. It was painted in the early 1880s by French artist Paul Philippoteaux.

Park Service officials had wanted to demolish the building sooner, but were delayed for several years by a lawsuit filed by the family of the architect who designed it in the early 1960s.

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Tom Barnes: or 717-623-1238.


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