Sunday, January 13, 2008

Other Voices---Gettysburg's Cyclorama Re-Opens in mid-April

Cyclorama, Museum To Magnify Spirit Of Gettysburg Park, Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau, Sunday, January 13, 2008.

A visit to the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park, where 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing in three days of fierce fighting in July 1863, has always been a moving experience. But trips to this hallowed ground, considered the turning point of the Civil War, will soon get even better for the nearly 2 million sightseers, tourists and history buffs who stop here each year.

Two major improvements are almost completed after two years of work. In early April, a new $103 million museum and visitors center will open. Then in late September, the famous Cyclorama -- a 360-degree, 42-foot-high painting depicting the bloody but unsuccessful charge led by Confederate Gen. George Pickett -- will be back on public display after an extensive restoration. The centerpiece of the visitor center is a tall, 10-sided structure clad in red insulated metal, somewhat resembling a big barn. Other sections of the visitors center also stick with the rural agricultural look, with a gray stone exterior, common to many old farmhouses in southcentral Pennsylvania.

The "barn" will contain the two most important features for visitors: a new museum, with 11 separate galleries outlining the events that led up to the Battle of Gettysburg and detailing each of the three days of bloody fighting, and a 35-foot-high escalator leading up to a circular platform from which visitors can view the Cyclorama. The new center is two-thirds of a mile from an old house that has served as the welcome center since 1972. The current welcome center can accommodate about 400,000 people per year, while Gettysburg visitation has grown far beyond that.
The new center will open by April 15, with the exact date to be announced soon, said Dru Neil, a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit group helping the National Park Service oversee the project's construction. The Gettysburg Foundation is raising $125 million for the project to build and maintain the new museum and visitors center and rehabilitate the painting. The funds include $20 million from the state, $15 million from the federal government and the rest private.

The new museum should be popular with Civil War junkies because it will have 11 historical galleries, each one named after phrases spoken by President Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address of November 1863. Different galleries will have pictures and documents of the years leading up to the Civil War. One will focus on the Civil War from 1861 to 1863. Its title will be Mr. Lincoln's words of "Now we are engaged in a great civil war." Another gallery will focus solely on battle, titled, "Now we are met on a great battlefield of that war." It will have information on the day before the battle started, with additional galleries detailing each of the three days of the battle.

The last gallery, called "Never forget what they did here," will outline ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield. The architects for the new museum and visitors center were LSC Design of York. They thought the design should reflect the Pennsylvania farmland and agricultural buildings, said Ms. Neil. The new center will also be filled with important historical artifacts, such as a portable wooden desk believed to have been used by Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee during the battle, and a journal used by Adams County physician Dr. John O'Neal to identity the locations of several thousand dead Confederate soldiers.
There are also two theaters where re-created movies of the battle will be shown, an education center for youth groups, a food court, a bookstore and museum shop and an area for unloading the dozens of buses filled with schoolchildren who arrive here.
The date for the Cyclorama unveiling has already been set: Sept. 26. Visitors and tourists once again will be able to view the panoramic painting portraying one of the most famous battles ever fought on American soil, Pickett's Charge. The painting has been out of public display for the past two years, undergoing a $15 million restoration.

The Cyclorama, painted in 1883-84 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, shows the intense fighting between the North and South on July 3, 1863, as Confederate soldiers under Pickett's command made a last, desperate gasp for victory before being forced to retreat south the next day. The Cyclorama consists of 14 separate panels, which are 42 feet high. The painting would be 377 feet long if stretched out in a straight line. Before being taken down for restoration, the Cyclorama had hung for 40 years in a building near the current visitors center. Its corkscrew-shaped interior staircase led visitors up to a platform where the painting could be viewed.

However, Ms. Neil said, the painting wasn't hung properly, which prevented visitors from seeing it at a proper sight line. The improper hanging also added to the deterioration of the canvas. Also, in the old configuration, there were portions of the sky missing, which made the painting not as tall as it should have been. These portions of sky and clouds will be restored before the painting is on view again in September. The condition of the canvas had greatly suffered over the years, said David Olin, of Olin Conservation Inc., who is overseeing the restoration.

Decades ago, the original 14 panels were chopped into 32 smaller pieces. As a result the painting "was not able to hang properly," Mr. Olin said. In the early part of the 20th century, the painting was "rolled up and cut and stored in various places," causing damage to the paint and the canvas. "We had to mend torn and rotted sections of canvas." There had been three previous restoration efforts, but the current one started in November 2003. Once the painting returns to public view, it will be the first time in more than 100 years that it will be displayed in its original curved, or "hyperbolic," shape, he said.
"We will put visitors back into the time of the battle," said Mr. Olin. "People will get a sense of 'wow.' People need to allow themselves to interact with the painting." The long escalator will bring tourists up to and down from a circular platform, positioned in the middle of the painting. The Gettysburg Cyclorama is one of only about a dozen such massive circular paintings in the world, Mr. Olin added.
Eventually, the current visitor center and the building that used to house the Cyclorama will be razed and the land will be returned to the way it appeared on July 1-3, 1863. Nothing new will be built on the land because "over 900 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the fighting on the land where the existing visitors center is located. We didn't want to further intrude on the ground where those soldiers had died," said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for the Gettysburg National Military Park.

No soldiers died on the land where the new visitors center is located, Ms. Neil said.
Gettysburg Foundation officials are confident that the two new additions will create "a new Gettysburg experience," said Ms. Neil. "Our goal, working with the National Park Service, is to ensure that visitors have an inspiring visit. We hope they go away wanting to learn more about what happened here and how important it was in our country's history."

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.


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