Turn back the clock at historic Gettysburg

Restoration: Dismantling ugly tower, moving visitors center would enhance Civil War battlefield.

February 10, 1999

ABRAHAM LINCOLN said of Gettysburg, Pa., 135 years ago, "The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract."

Too bad some didn't listen.

Structures added in and around the historic Civil War battleground have detracted from it. The 310-foot-tall National Tower, for example, looms like a mutated Erector Set near the cemetery where Lincoln gave his enduring address.

The "Cyclorama" center, the circular home of Paul Philipoteaux's 356-foot painting of the conflict, was poorly located by the National Park Service 40 years ago on a significant slice of the battlefield.

The flawed thinking then was that visitors centers belonged in the middle of historic areas. (The Antietam battlefield in Western Maryland is seeking money to move its center, too.)

Last week, President Clinton earmarked $5.7 million in his budget to purchase property around the battlefield, including the National Tower, which will be torn down. As part of a broad plan, the park service is considering a new $40 million visitors center, funded and managed by a private nonprofit corporation. It would tear down the existing center, a half-mile northwest, and return the terrain to its 1863 appearance. Called Ziegler's Grove then, it was a target of Pickett's Charge, the climactic, failed offensive of the Confederacy.

Town businesses don't want the visitors center farther from them. A park service study's finding that a first-class center would pump $25 million into the local economy hasn't allayed fears.

The House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands should avoid getting bogged down in these quarrels when it hears the park service plan today. A high-tech, sensibly placed center is a good idea, especially if taxpayers are spared much of the burden.

As for the tower, it's high time, to paraphrase Lincoln, for it to perish from the earth.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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