Towering loss for engineer

Demolition: As the Park Service prepares to destroy a reviled visitors platform at Gettysburg Battlefield, its proud designer laments its fate.

June 20, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Joel H. Rosenblatt worked on the design of the Bay Bridge, the Cabin John Bridge and the Capital Beltway. But the National Tower at Gettysburg is nearest and dearest to his heart.

And the 320-foot-tall hourglass-shaped structure he designed to look out over the battlefield shouldn't be blown up, he says. It should be proudly preserved.

Reviled as visual pollution by park officials and historic preservationists, the tower was a marvel of engineering in the early 1970s, said Rosenblatt.

"It's not a matter of whether or not it's ugly," he said. "This thing is more than just another tower: It is unusual engineering design, and it is worth saving. It deserves attention for itself."

Rosenblatt calls the National Park Service's plan to demolish it next month "an act of criminal vandalism" and hopes someone will come forward to save it.

The tower is so unusual that Rosenblatt said he took out patents on its shape and on the construction, which required the world's largest computer then available to analyze the design and the world's largest crane to build.

Rosenblatt, 75, was born in Baltimore. He entered Forest Park High School at the age of 12, then joined the University of Maryland's Class of 1944, graduating in 1948 after serving in the Army in World War II.

"He's a renaissance man," said John E. Johnson, professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin and Rosenblatt's mentor. "They don't make Joel Rosenblatts anymore. He's more of a modern Leonardo da Vinci than an engineer."

Johnson recalled their discussions of the tower. "Joel designed this structure. He wanted to know if I could do the computer analysis, [but] the only place that could handle it was [Control Data Corp.] in Rockville, where the computer filled the whole room and then some."

So Johnson and Rosenblatt spent hours at the computer early one morning. The purpose was to analyze the stresses and strains of 1,119 joints and 1,871 connecting pieces - half the number of pieces, because the tower is symmetrical, Rosenblatt said.

"That was what I needed to use to do the tower," Rosenblatt said. "The only thing that made it feasible was the introduction of the high-speed computer. The structure was done in tiny little pieces."

They calculated how it would survive in the wind. The tower, which has no guy wires, is 90 feet in diameter at the base and 75 feet at the top, he said.

Johnson, who has a research and testing laboratory near Madison, Wis., said he remains amazed by "the technology that went into that tower. Joel to me is one of the most remarkable men I have ever met, and I have met a lot of remarkable men and women."

The tower's height was dictated by the elevation of Little Round Top, the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg.

It opened July 27, 1974, and was a regular stop for tourists, who assumed from its name that it was part of the park.

If the tower can't stay where it is, Rosenblatt said, "you could take it apart. It goes together like a big Erector set. It's all bolted, it's not welded, so it could be disassembled and reassembled somewhere else," perhaps for a windmill.

But Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix in Baltimore County plans to demolish the tower, on Baltimore Pike south of Gettysburg, on July 3 - the 137th anniversary of Pickett's Charge, which ended the three-day battle that many historians say marked the beginning of the end of the war.

Rosenblatt sees the demolition as another case of engineers getting no respect, compared with architects. Spokesmen for several national engineering societies said that no move appears to be afoot to save it.

In contrast, a Park Service plan to demolish the Cyclorama, a circular building that houses a diorama of Pickett's Charge by architect Richard Neutra, has prompted a national campaign to preserve it, supported by at least one preservation group that wants the tower razed.

Gettysburg National Military Park, operated by the Park Service, got the keys to the tower Wednesday from its owner, Thomas Ottenstein and Overview Ltd. Partnership. A federal judge ruled earlier this month that the government could take the property and will determine how much the owners should be paid.

It won't be worth much as scrap, Rosenblatt said, because so little metal went into it that Bethlehem Steel Corp. decided it wasn't worth bidding on.

So the steel pieces were fabricated in York, Pa., sent to Baltimore to be galvanized, then erected with cranes of increasing size, he said. "The last one was the biggest crane made at the time. It came to the site on six trucks and was on rubber tires, not a crawler."

Rosenblatt was working for the Robert B. Balter Co. of Owings Mills at the time, and they won a national award for the tower from the American Council of Civil Engineers, said Edward G. Balter, executive vice president of his late father's firm.

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