Amid mixed mood, Gettysburg tower is set to be toppled

Battlefield landmark is eyesore to some, `classroom' to others

July 02, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The music has stopped at the National Tower at Gettysburg, since the National Park Service took the keys and barred the gate in mid-June.

The tinny polkas and country music always bothered townspeople more than the tower itself, said Gettysburg Mayor William E. Troxell, because it invaded not only the Soldiers National Cemetery where President Lincoln gave his address, but the private Evergreen Cemetery where local families buried their loved ones.

"That tower isn't 50 feet from the citizens' cemetery," Troxell said. "You can imagine with funerals taking place, it just wasn't appreciated."

The new silence will be briefly -- but loudly -- shattered about 5 p.m. tomorrow, with a tower-toppling blast by Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix, Md.

Explosives at the base should lay down the openwork steel tower to the southwest, he said, all 393 feet to the top of its lightning rod and more than 2 million pounds of steel, said CDI president Mark Loizeaux.

"Once it's going, it's going to go fast," he said.

The only thing that might stop the razing would be lightning -- or an unauthorized spectator inside the 9,000-foot perimeter, Loizeaux said.

The tower has been targeted since before it opened in July 1974, as Pennsylvania officials fought a court battle for several years to stop it.

Park officials and preservation groups never gave up, however, and last year the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt vowed at Gettysburg that the tower would come down on his watch.

"People who care want it down," said Ranger Katie Lawhon, park spokeswoman. "This has been sacred ground since weeks after the battle took place. We want to tell the story of 1863 without this monstrosity looming out there."

The tower was designed by Joel H. Rosenblatt, a Baltimore engineer. The largest computers and crane at the time were used to design and construct it. The tower was owned by Thomas Ottenstein and the Overview Ltd. Partnership, who is in a dispute with the federal government over it value, placed between $3 million and $7 million.

The demolition will begin with cannon representing each side in the War Between the States firing a ceremonial shot at the tower.

Babbitt will be among a celebrating group of park and preservation-group officials, and will give the signal to push the button.

The tower should fall in seconds, Loizeaux said.

But the demolition isn't likely to quiet the commotion in town, where merchants wonder who might be the next target of the federal government's legal ability to take over private property.

Eric Uberman, of C. M. Uberman Enterprises Inc. of Rockville, which owns the National Civil War Wax Museum among other properties, dislikes the commercialism associated with the tower demolition. "It's like dancing on another man's grave," he said of some Gettysburg shops selling T-shirts with the tower toppling. "How would they like it if the government were exploding their business?"

Mayor Troxell, a borough native and Civil War buff, said, "I personally have very mixed emotions on it. It's one of those things that's completely out of the setting that you would expect, but other people enjoy it."

B. J. Small, editor of the Gettysburg Times since 1988, said the paper had received more letters about the tower than it could print.

"We have been just inundated," he said. "This is almost precedent-setting in the volume of it; it's been that way for the past four or five weeks."

The overwhelming sentiment? "Save the tower, hands down: 80 to 20," said Small, a Gettysburg native who wrote a letter to the paper opposing the tower when he was in high school. He was in the majority then, Small said. But locals and visitors came to appreciate what the tower owners called "the classroom in the sky."

"People who have gone up the tower appreciate it," he said, because they were able to see and understand the battle that many historians say was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.

Margaret Weaver, president of the Gettysburg Adams County Area Chamber of Commerce, said of their members: "There are mixed emotions about it. There are the people who are dedicated and impassioned about the Gettysburg battlefield and the Civil War who see it as an intrusion, and then there are those who feel the best view they've ever had of the battlefield is from the top of the tower."

The chamber's office has received calls from throughout the East about the tower, but she couldn't predict how many people will watch the tower fall.

One who isn't benefiting from the extra interest is Jay Patel, owner of the Econo Lodge just below the tower -- the only place in town with rooms available. Gettysburg books up two to three months before the July 3 weekend, sometimes a year in advance, he said. The date is the anniversary of Pickett's Charge, the costly assault by Confederate troops.

Because of the evacuation during the demolition, Patel had 15 cancellations for his 42 rooms.

"We're only 500 feet from it," he said. "They say it's safe, but the whole hotel is going to be emptied out. I hope it falls the way they say it will."

Tens of thousands of visitors are expected tomorrow, Lawhon said.

But Loizeaux of the demolition company said he'd rather be alone.

"This is not a spectator sport. I'd like to make it clear: People are not invited," he said. "If anyone crosses that line, I will wait. I will not go." The FAA has also restricted the air space.

"From an engineering standpoint, I've always found the tower interesting," he said.

But his boyhood memories of climbing Devil's Den and Little Round Top don't include the structure, "so to me, it is an intrusion."

If you are planning to go: Sections of the Baltimore Pike (Route 97 ) and Taneytown Road (Route 134 ) will be closed from 4 p.m. tomorrow until shortly after the demolition. Hunt Avenue will remain closed all day.

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