Written by Julia Miller
Situated in Ziegler’s Grove in Gettysburg National Park rests a remarkable building designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra.
Known as the Cyclorama Center, the half-century-old building was once used by the National Park Service as a visitor center and to display a 40-foot high, 365-foot long cylindrical painting of the famous July 3, 1863 infantry assault known as “Pickett’s Charge," which is credited with turning the Civil War in favor of the Union. The round mural, referred to as “the Cyclorama” and painted by Paul Phillippoteaux not long after the battle itself, has since been relocated to the nearby Gettysburg Museum and Visitor’s Center after a five-year restoration project. The now closed and fenced in Cyclorama Center has been left to decay, belying its once dazzling appearance.
Despite the building’s architectural significance and its eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service has approved its demolition. The Cyclorama Center is perched on Cemetery Ridge, the site of the bloody attack depicted in Phillippoteaux’s painting. In the National Park Service’s view, the building stands in the way of its efforts to restore key landscape features of the park. Therein lays the conundrum.
Dismayed by the National Park Service’s decision to demolish the Cyclorama Center, the Recent Past Preservation Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of buildings from the recent past, Dion Neutra, the son of the late architect, and Christine Madrid French filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the National Park Service from carrying out its plans. They charged the National Park Service and individually named defendants with violating both Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in deciding to raze the structure. The NHPA claims were dismissed on the grounds that they were time-barred and the plaintiffs had failed to establish any “deficiency” with the National Park Service’s “agency-side preservation program." However, the court, in a decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs under NEPA.
The Cyclorama Center, under the court’s decision, gets a reprieve – at least for the time being. On March 31, 2010, Judge Hogan ordered the National Park Service to reconsider its decision to demolish the building. Specifically, the court ordered the National Park Service to conduct “a full implementation-level and site-specific environmental analysis on the demolition of the Cyclorama Center and non-demolition alternatives before any implementing action is taken on the Cyclorama Center.” (Cyclorama Center proponents have urged the National Park Service to consider moving the building to a new location, and have enlisted support from the company that moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for the National Park Service in 1989.)
Judge Hogan essentially faulted the agency for failing to provide sufficient notice of its decision to demolish the Center, as well as its analysis under that decision. While the National Park Service had issued a final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (GMP/EIS), which provided a park-wide assessment in 1999, the plan and EIS failed to include any specific analysis of the Center and its removal. Similarly, the National Park Service’s 1999 Record of Decision (ROD) only discussed the effects of demolition and new construction “in general, park-wide terms.” Accordingly, Judge Hogan rejected the agency’s claims that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was time-barred on the grounds that the statute’s six-year statute of limitations had run, since the ROD did not provide notice of the Park Service’s final action with regard to the Cyclorama Center. He also rejected the claim that a 1995/1996 Draft Concept Plans/Environmental Assessments and the 1999 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established that a decision to demolish the Center had been reached, since the documents had not been incorporated into the ROD. He stated, “The court cannot countenance disregard for NEPA’s public notice requirements by considering unincorporated documents in its evaluation of the Park Service’s actions here.”
Finally, Judge Hogan determined that the agency had violated NEPA by failing to consider alternatives to demolition of the Center’s in its 1999 GMP/EIS. While he acknowledged that the National Park Service may have “conducted sufficient analyses,” he faulted the agency for failing to provide adequate notice of that analysis, assuming it occurred. In March 2009, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay had recommended that the U.S. District Court rule in favor of the plaintiffs and order the National Park Service to prepare a full-blown EIS to evaluate the demolition of the Cyclorama Center and non-demolition alternatives. While Judge Hogan agreed with the Magistrate overall, he modified the recommendation slightly by directing the agency to perform an “environmental analysis,” in view of the fact that preparation of an EIS may not necessarily be required.
At this point, all eyes are on the National Park Service.
Julia Miller serves as special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Along with her colleagues in the National Trust’s Legal Department, she will be blogging about all things legal each Friday in our new series, Preservation Law Notes.
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