By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
GETTYSBURG, PA. — It’s become a cliche for journalists to write about “The Second Battle of Gettysburg” everytime there’s some threat to the hallowed battlefield here.
If that were true, they’d be up to the 20th or 30th Battle by now, because this sacred ground has, for the last century, consistently been the target of preservationists’ ire.
They argue, not without cause, that the site of the most important battle ever fought on American soil has been tarnished by mismanagement, garish tourist traps, and a disregard for history.
“There is no question that serious mistakes were made in the placement and construction of facilities at Gettysburg,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.
And park officials don’t disagree. With a plan announced last month, they hope they can fix the mistakes of the past.
“I think we can vastly improve the experience of visitors,” park spokesperson Katie Lawhon said.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War, the point of the Confederacy’s northernmost advance. After three days of battle, there were 51,000 casualties, 8,000 of them dead.
But ever since, an embarrassing series of missteps have kept the battlefield from being the shrine it could be. Equally to blame are a lack of funds and a lack of taste.
Congress has never provided park officials with money to build a quality visitor’s center or museum. The current visitor’s center was once a private home park officials bought intending to demolish it. When money for a new center was not forthcoming, they decided to use the house itself. The small facility is packed all summer, and no room exists to display the park’s collection of artifacts.
Hidden away in a series of basement and attic spaces are nearly 1 million guns, battle flags, documents, and other items – all in rooms uncontrolled for heat or humidity and without any fire protection. Mold, dust, and the grit that falls from ceilings have ruined some neglected artifacts.
Without much guidance from a visitor’s center, tourists more often have their Gettysburg experience created by questionable tourist “attractions” that fill the void. Not all are interesting and historically respectful.
* Pickett’s Charge, the site of the battle’s bloody final attack, is within convenient walking distance of General Pickett’s Buffet.
* Nearby are “the most beautiful Dioramas ever created of the Civil War” and the “World Famous LINCOLN Toy Train Collection.”
* There are two wax museums: one the “world’s only complete collection of American Presidents and their First Ladies” (Bill Clinton looks like he’s been mistakenly assigned Jimmy Carter’s teeth and is storing nuts in his cheeks for the winter), and the National Civil War Wax Museum, featuring the “fully dimensional, animated” wax Lincoln delivering his address, perhaps the nation’s most famous speech.
Entire stretches of road through the battleground seem dedicated to the proposition that all signs should be created equally gaudy and neon. It seems as if as many monuments have been erected to bad taste as to war dead.
Perhaps most egregious is the National Tower. In the 1970s, on a private plot of land adjacent to the cemetery where Lincoln spoke, Maryland developer Thomas Ottenstein decided he wanted to build a 300-foot-tall tower to provide tourists, at a price, an overhead view of the battlefield. “A classroom in the sky,” he called it. After three years of court battles, it opened in 1974.
Looking like the unnatural spawn of the Eiffel Tower and a junkyard tin shack, it fills the sky from just about anywhere on the battlefield. In the town of Gettysburg, pop. 7,000, it doesn’t just dominate the skyline; it is the skyline. Tower workers sometimes blare loud music from the base to attract tourists; the music is clearly audible in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery next door.
Columnist George Will has said it is “an affront to the living as well as the dead.” Mr. Moe called it “perhaps the most intrusive and obnoxious structure within the boundaries of any national park in America.”
But try as they might, preservationists, government leaders, and philanthropists have not been able to tear it down after more than two decades of trying.
Dozens of other battles, large and small, have raged throughout the park’s history. An intact field hospital was demolished a few years ago to make way for a Wal-Mart. In 1991, misguided bulldozers mistakenly tore up 7.5 acres of Seminary Ridge – the focus of fighting on the battle’s first day – and nearly caused a hill to collapse. The bulldozers were erroneously sent onto the battlefield to reroute a nearby railroad.
“I think we always try to learn from our mistakes,” Ms. Lawhon said.
Last month, the National Park Service released a draft of its plan to fix Gettysburg’s many problems, acknowledging many mistakes in contrite language.
The plan’s centerpiece is the demolition of the current visitor’s center and the building of a structure in a less obtrusive spot, with plenty of room for the park’s collections. The Cyclorama, a cylindrical building built in the 1960s and now considered an abomination, is scheduled to come down.
Much of the battleground would be returned to the condition it was in at the time of the battle, adding or removing trees and fences to bring them in line with the summer of 1863.
New exhibits would be aimed at doing a better job at explaining the battle’s context, something a visitor could leave the park knowing almost nothing about today.
As for the National Tower, the park service has been granted the legal authority to negotiate with Mr. Ottenstein to purchase it and tear it down. Negotiations have been ongoing, and the park has only about $2 million of the nearly $7 million they estimate it will cost to close the deal.
The whole package – not including the tower – would cost $63.5 million, and faces a public review before it can be adopted.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a statement in support of the plan, but cautioned that the details will “deserve close attention.”
“The plan offers the promise of correcting the mistakes of the past,” Mr. Moe said. “I believe we have all learned the hard lessons of those experiences.”
But Ms. Lawhon is confident the park has got it right this time.
“At one time, people probably thought it was a good idea to build a visitor’s center and a parking lot right on the Union battle line,” she said. “Times have changed.”