Another battle being waged in Gettysburg

Getting a visitors center at the historic site proves to be a difficult task

April 04, 1999|By Mary Leonard | Mary Leonard,Boston Globe

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- There's another war raging on the rolling terrain where Pickett's Charge, the deadliest and most horrific encounter in the three-day Civil War battle of Gettysburg, occurred in July 1863. This one is between a small town and the Washington bureaucracy and the forces of commercialism and preservation.

Causing the commotion are plans for a visitors center to accommodate crowds of 1.7 million annually at the 5,900-acre Gettysburg National Military Park and the adjacent National Cemetery where President Lincoln gave his immortal address. The center would include a museum to house and preserve the largest, richest single collection of Civil War artifacts in the world.

But just as it was during the Civil War, the enemy is defined by where you live. What sounded like a swell idea in Washington -- setting up a private-public partnership to turn a decaying, cash-strapped national park into a state-of-the-art attraction -- has enraged the community that was supposed to benefit most from it.

There isn't any side in the fight over America's most famous battlefield that doesn't claim to have the best interests of Gettysburg at heart. That includes the National Park Service, the town fathers and merchants, a private developer, and a variety of historical societies and Civil War buffs.

Even Congress has stepped in, holding a hearing to determine what's gone wrong and who's to blame in this hallowed place just north of the Mason-Dixon line.

"Getting the job done at Gettysburg involves change, and change is frightening to many people," said John Latschar, the park superintendent and blunt Vietnam veteran who has become the symbol, to many, of the federal government's insensitivity and political blundering of the visitors center project. "People don't like me. I may seem arrogant because I think I can do it."

What Latschar thinks he can do is get a $39 million, 118,000 square-foot visitors facility open by 2005. There, tourists would be able to view storytelling exhibits on the causes and consequences of Gettysburg, the critical and costly Union victory in which 51,000 men died, were wounded or captured; see an educational film; catch a tour bus; eat lunch; and buy a souvenir book or map. It would also house a restored Cyclorama, the 350-foot panoramic painting of Pickett's Charge that hung from 1884 to 1891 in the Tremont Street building that now houses the Boston Center for the Arts.

The plan also calls for reclaiming Ziegler's Grove, an important piece of the battlefield, by demolishing two notable structures: the current visitors center, a red-brick house built in 1921 by the Rosensteels, a prominent local family, and the unusual Cyclorama building, designed in 1961 and now on the list of sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Angela Rosensteel Eckert, 80, is so angry about the plan to raze her old home that she is threatening to sue the Park Service to retrieve the priceless collection of war artifacts her family deeded it in 1971. Meanwhile, a historic-architecture advocacy group is waging a campaign on the Internet to save the Cyclorama building from the wrecking ball.

But the real sticking point is the relocation of the visitors center and museum to a 45-acre piece of private property inside the park. The new spot is not only slightly outside the borough of Gettysburg, but is also nearly a mile -- beyond easy walking distance -- from the dozens of fast-food restaurants, gift shops, and tourist attractions that have grown up across Steinwehr Avenue from the visitors center parking lot.

"Gettysburg is a one-industry town, full of small, family businesses, and we believe to physically isolate the visitor center from that town will have a potentially devastating effect," said Ted Streeter, a member of the Gettysburg borough council. "The Park Service plan is greedy and short-sighted."

Park Service officials insist they have listened to the community at more than 30 public hearings, and kept the decision-making, begun in the mid-1990s, open every step of the way. They also tried to accommodate local businesses by dropping proposals for an IMAX theater and gift shops, scaling back the visitors center food service, and planning shuttle buses into the historic center of town.

But there are plenty of townspeople and preservationists who don't trust the Park Service. They blame the agency for failing to tear down a private observation tower -- a 310-foot eyesore built in 1972 as a tourist attraction next to the park. They are angry, too, that in 1990 the Park Service swapped a 7.5-acre tract of battlefield with Gettysburg College, which promptly carved it up to build a rail spur.

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