Gettysburg Redux

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Visitors don’t get a good look at the new facility at Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg National Military Park until they get close—and even then they could mistake it for an exceptionally large farm complex. That’s no accident. The design and location of the visitor center is in step with the park’s commitment to rehabilitate the 6,000-acre battlefield and surrounding area so it more closely resembles the landscape of July 1863 when the momentous battle took place.

Rehabilitation has involved everything from cutting down or planting trees, and building split-rail fences, to building an unobtrusive new center and making plans to demolish the previous facility, a dilapidated 1920s building that occupied land once a prominent part of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. By fall the round Cyclorama Building nearby, the former home for Paul Philippoteaux’s epic 360-degree battle painting, should also be gone, although preservationists have sued to save it. This new preservation strategy claimed the observation tower in 2003.

The mammoth 130,000-square-foot center is a history lover’s paradise, complete with a museum, two theaters, a computer room, educational facilities, bookstore and cafeteria as well as park offices and storage areas. The visitor’s experience will be quote different than before, says park spokesperson Katie Lawhon, who remembers the old facilities as a “hodge podge.” Twelve galleries in the new museum not only guide visitors efficiently through the events of the bloody three-day battle, but “tell the story of the battle within the context of the causes and consequences of the American Civil War.”

While the center opened in April, the official grand opening will come in September with the unveiling of “The Battle of Gettysburg,” Philippoteaux’s newly restored Cyclorama painting. The 337-foot-long canvas, originally completed in 1884, depicts the Union defense against Pickett’s Charge on the battle’s final day. In its new home the Cyclorama will include a recreation of the three-dimensional diorama of terrain and battle debris that originally ran along the painting’s bottom, creating an even more realistic illusion of combat.

In other news, the park recently acquired the 80-acre George Spangler Farm. Located behind the Union lines, the farm served as a staging place for logistical support during the battle. Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, mortally wounded during Pickett’s Charge, died of his wounds after the battle at the hospital inside one of the farm buildings. In his painting, Philippoteaux portrayed Armistead on horseback, although the general led his men on foot. Chalk it up to artistic license trumping historical fact—something the people who work in Gettysburg’s new visitor center don’t want to have happen very often. (Contact: www.nps.gov/gett.)

Tom Huntington