As followers of RPPN well know, we are about two weeks deep into analysis of the site-specific Environmental Analysis (EA) that was released for the Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg – a document mandated by the U.S. District Court in response to a lawsuit filed by the Recent Past Preservation Network and others against the National Park Service (NPS). In this suit, the judge ruled in favor of RPPN, noting the NPS’ failure to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The recently released EA represents the NPS’ attempt to complete environmental compliance requirements and move forward with demolition of the historic structure.
In presenting its analysis, the EA evaluates three alternatives: Alternative A, mothballing the building; Alternative B, demolition of the building; and Alternative C, relocation of the building outside the park by a private entity. In evaluating the alternatives, the EA paints a very specific picture of the Cyclorama, its current situation, and its fate. The interpretation of that picture is, at this time, a continued point of discussion for RPPN, the public, and all interested parties – a discussion that will be illuminated upon as the comment period moves toward an end on September 21, 2012.
What can be said at this time, though, is that the prolonged discussion regarding the future of the Cyclorama is not just simply about a building, albeit one recognized and documented as a significant structure.
Rather, it is about the effort to acknowledge the importance of the responsible stewardship of recent past places in concert with other historic places as part of a dynamic and varied landscape.
It is about process and regulation, objectivity, and the due diligence afforded all historic properties – regardless of their originating date or conflict with other prescribed periods of significance – by federal regulations, enacted to protect the full range of cultural resources that contribute to the well-being of our communities, our history, and our people.
It is about the discussion and interpretation of relative significance and how or if one history should trump that of another, and if it should, who should make that decision and under what constraints should that determination should be permissible.
It is about context and the applicability of context, both in terms of determining what should be preserved and venerated and in terms of actions taken in relation not only to a specific location with a specified purpose but in relation to an agency that has broad authority for protecting and promoting a rich and varied history across the geography of the United States, and where those contexts overlap.
It is about avoiding an instance of revisionist history that will result in the loss of a legitimately historic structure, ultimately eroding the overall historic integrity and fabric of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the National Park Service system, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that cultural landscapes change over time and that multiple and varied layers of significance permeate the fabric of the United States, revealing unique and varied collectives of history that cannot be replaced or replicated.
To be certain, on paper, it’s about a building – one of concrete, steel, and glass, accented in native stone. But behind that are many other issues which should be of interest to all students of history, of architecture, of historic preservation, of Gettysburg, and of environmental process and federal regulations. Indeed, no matter which side you come down on at the personal level, important issues are being brought to attention. Issues that hold profound and broad implications for the future of interpretation and historic preservation.
As such, you’re encouraged to read the EA, regardless of whether or not you choose to respond to the document on whatever side you favor, as a student of history, of architecture, of historic preservation, of Gettysburg, or of environmental process and federal regulations. Be informed, do your own research, and don’t simply take things at face value – analyze and reflect (critically), and most importantly, discuss. The dialogue that has been opened is an important one that underlies the definitions of historic, significance, and interpretation – definitions that provide the framework for history and for historic preservation at-large. Definitions that are not just about a building.