Gettysburg exhibit deemed safe, set to reopen

Asbestos tests complete at Cyclorama Center

April 09, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

As armies of schoolchildren invade Gettysburg, the National Park Service will reopen a popular battlefield attraction today -- the Cyclorama Center, home of a panoramic painting of Pickett's Charge -- after tests for asbestos found safe levels.

The circular hall near the visitor center closed Tuesday afternoon, said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park, after employees opening the building found a 14-inch section of ceiling had fallen in a second-floor lobby entrance.

"It was very sudden," Lawhon said. "Since the ceiling contains 15 percent asbestos, we closed it to be on the safe side." Fibers in the air were suspected to be asbestos.

Preliminary tests Tuesday by a Chambersburg, Pa., company showed .017 unspecified fibers per cubic centimeter in the air of the second-floor lobby, she said. Asbestos levels above .01 per cubic centimeter are considered unacceptable.

More sophisticated tests yesterday by a Louisville, Ky., company found that "a very low percentage of the fibers were asbestos," she said, well below the federal safety levels.

Nevertheless, she said, the second-floor lobby will remain closed until the damaged ceiling area is sealed or removed, which will require closing the building again -- probably within a month.

The center was built in 1962 and holds the 1884 panoramic painting by Paul Philippoteaux of Pickett's Charge -- the most famous event of the bloody three-day battle. The painting, 26 feet high and 356 feet wide, was designated a National Historic Object in 1944.

The cyclorama drew 27,951 visitors in April 1998, Lawhon said, and more than 275,000 visitors during the year. The battlefield draws nearly 2 million visitors a year.

As the weather improves, the park enters the high point of the tourist season. Last year, the record was broken for school buses on a single day.

"We're busier at the end of the school year," she said. "Wednesday and Fridays in May are the busiest, and usually one Friday in May is the busiest day for school buses."

The anniversary of Pickett's charge, July 3, usually brings the largest number of one-day visitors.

The building was closed about 3 p.m. Tuesday and remained closed through yesterday, Lawhon said. There was no line Tuesday morning for the first half-hour show, she said, but a steady stream of visitors had built to about 30 to 40 per group by late morning and continued into the afternoon.

"We wanted to determine whether there was an asbestos problem or not," she said, when asked why they were admitted. "You can imagine there was tight timing."

Tuesday's visitors aren't expected to suffer any ill effects, she said. The ceiling section was "no bigger than the size of a notebook" and was removed before the building opened. And, she said, most visitors don't use the second-floor lobby but enter a first-floor lobby on the building's east side.

The Cyclorama Center is near the museum and visitors center on the nearly 6,000-acre battlefield, at a spot where Union troops withstood the doomed Confederate assault on the third and final day of the battle, July 3, 1863.

The building, by architect Richard Neutra, has been declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Asbestos is in the building's ceiling, Lawhon said, but it was encapsulated about five years ago to prevent the escape of fibers -- the material implicated in fatal lung cancer and other health problems.

The fallen section of roof was not tile but more like crumbled plaster, she said. Workers "saw an active leak. The water was dripping [through] the big flat roof in the lobby, straight to the floor."

That roof has been a problem since at least 1979, according to park officials, who have shown visitors stress fractures in the building's concrete blamed for leaks and high humidity that have wrinkled the canvas. During the summer of 1997, a new roof leaked and water flowed directly onto the painting, Lawhon said.

Park officials support moving the cyclorama as part of a plan for a new $39 million visitor center, to be built through a public-private partnership with a York, Pa., developer.

The proposed site is a 45-acre tract about a mile from town on the Baltimore Pike, Route 97, in an area said by advocates to be without historic significance. They say it was used only as a staging area.

The museum and visitor center, the cyclorama, an electric map, theater, archives and bookstore all would move to the new location, under the proposal by the nonprofit Gettysburg National Battlefield Foundation, Lawhon said.

After the new visitor center opens, plans call for the existing museum building -- and Cyclorama Center -- to be razed and the area restored to its 1863 appearance, when it was called Ziegler's Grove.

Some Gettysburg merchants and officials have opposed the plan for a new center, fearing a loss of tourist dollars downtown.

The visitor center proposal is under consideration by the federal government, and congressional representatives and their aides have been touring the park facilities for months, Lawhon said. If approved, the new center would take four years to complete, including fund raising and construction.

"The battlefield is on the National Register; the building is eligible for the National Register, and the painting is a National Object," Lawhon said. "It is impossible to ensure the preservation of all three."

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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