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The past imperfect

The Baltimore Sun

GETTYSBURG, Pa. --Millions of Americans, young and old, have learned about one of the Civil War's decisive battles by filing into the Cyclorama Center here and peering at a huge circular painting depicting the climax of that epic three-day bloodbath.

Yet on a landscape steeped in history, where statues and monuments abound, there is no plaque commemorating the work of this building's renowned architect, Richard Neutra, famous enough in his day to make the cover of Time magazine. In fact, though only 45 years old, the building's days are numbered, as construction proceeds on a new, more commodious visitors center on a less hallowed spot on the battlefield, away from where the fighting raged..

Last month, however, a Virginia-based group calling itself the Recent Past Preservation Network filed suit against the National Park Service, seeking to block the Cyclorama Center's demolition.

"I just think it is too important a building to just throw in the dumpster," says Christine M. French, president of the group.

While Baltimore has been roiled lately by disputes over protecting historic buildings, some dating back to the city's early seaport days, architects and preservationists point out that many noteworthy structures built since World War II aren't even on the radar screen because they are not old enough to be thought of as historic. And, well, they look modern.

On the outskirts of Washington, for example, sits the former Comsat Laboratories, a futuristic-looking aluminum-and-glass structure in Montgomery County. It was designed by another noted architect, Cesar Pelli, for the company that launched the first private telecommunications satellites into orbit.

Neither building has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places, though the Cyclorama Center's historical and architectural significance has been noted. The register, run by the park service, normally does not list any building or place that is less than 50 years old.

But advocates of preserving modern architecture contend that in today's sped-up development environment, many extraordinary structures built in the past 50 years will be lost before they could qualify for official recognition and protection.

"Building cycles are now more like 30 years," says Mary Corbin Sies, an associate professor in American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Something can be easily mown down or bulldozed and paved over without much thought about whether it can have historical significance when it was built in the post-World War II era."

Sies and a colleague, Isabelle Gournay, an associate architecture professor at College Park, have conducted a statewide survey to identify distinctive modern buildings or groups of structures in Maryland that they believe are worthy of preserving. They came up with 18, but say there are many more, and that additional research is needed to document their significance.

Yet in a state colonized nearly 380 years ago, recently built structures often get short shrift.

"Modernism has been popularly depicted as something that really is not very popular," Sies says, "that is very cold, that is alienating and that sort of insists on a kind of design purity that makes it not necessarily amenable to human habitation."

Many of the notable Modern structures built in the Baltimore-Washington corridor are more "down to earth," she says. Custom and tract homes built in some parts of the suburbs were sited and designed to fit into the landscape, and used lots of wood and stone in addition to glass to establish visual connections with the surrounding environment.

"We really use the term 'baby boom Modernism' to summarize the kind of houses and churches and office buildings and shopping centers that went up in post-World War II suburbs," Sies says. "Architects told us that is where the money was, where people were moving."

While some notable Modern structures in the state have been recognized, including Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Baltimore and Bethesda and a Neutra building at St. John's College in Annapolis, the University of Maryland professors' survey highlighted lesser-known sites such as Baltimore's Highfield House condo building, designed by Mies van der Rohe; Goucher College's Towson campus; and several synagogues and churches in the suburbs.

Some exceptional Modern buildings have undergone alterations over the years, Sies says, but few in the state are as important as the Comsat building. She says it is one of the most significant early works by Pelli, an Argentina native who designed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as well as some of the world's tallest buildings. His structures often feature curves and metal, and the Comsat building "sort of telegraphed his style," she says.

Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation, a local group seeking to save the Comsat building, says the structure symbolizes the dawning of the space age, putting it on a par with the 19th-century log cabin in Rockville that was once home to Josiah Henson - the slave whose 1849 autobiography was the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"It is, in its own way, as important as Uncle Tom's Cabin because of its contributions to science and culture," says Goldstein.

Until this month, the COMSAT building appeared in jeopardy. LCOR Inc., the Pennsylvania-based company that now owns it, announced its intention to demolish the structure so the 200-acre campus on which it sits could be redeveloped.

Preservationists rallied to save the building, organizing a design "charette" last summer to air ideas for building around the existing structure. The event even drew the elderly Pelli, who said he opposed tearing down his creation.

After months of talks, the developer and preservationists reached a compromise this month. LCOR pledged to retain the architecturally significant core of the Comsat building - its glass corridors and aluminum-skinned wings - while demolishing the cafeteria, warehouse and support space. The company plans to build 1,500 new homes, office buildings and stores on the site. The retained portion of the Comsat building would be donated to the county for community use.

"We are really keeping, I think, the most important elements of his design intact in a very visible location," said Michael J. Smith, an LCOR vice president,

The future is less hopeful for the Cyclorama Center, which garnered widespread praise for its innovative design when it opened in 1962. The building consists of a low office and museum wing attached to a huge round auditorium set on "spider legs," L-shaped beams that were one of the architect's design signatures.

Park service officials have said the building has outlived its usefulness and needs to go. The building's removal is part of a larger plan to make the nearly 6,000--acre battlefield park more closely resemble the landscape where two great armies clashed 143 years ago. It sits on Cemetery Ridge near Ziegler's Grove, where Union troops beat back the Rebels' final attack, popularly known as Pickett's Charge.

The huge painting the building houses, a 19th-century version of the IMAX created by Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux, already has been taken down and is undergoing a painstaking, $11.5 million restoration before being moved to the new visitors' center sometime this year.

The painting, 359 feet long and 27 feet high, suffered serious degradation while hanging in the Cyclorama building, says Dru Anne Neil, communications director for the Gettysburg Foundation. The canvas was pulling apart because it was hung improperly, and fluctuations in humidity and temperature added to the stress.

The new $39 million visitors' center, being built in a partnership between the foundation and the park service, would enable the painting to be hung properly and even restored to its original size, some 365 feet by 42 feet.

Katie Lawhon, a park service spokeswoman, declined to discuss the fate of the Cyclorama because of the lawsuit. But officials have said before that the building was too small to handle the 1.8 million visitors a year and lacked proper climate controls and display space for all the exhibits.

Christine French, of the Recent Past Preservation Network and herself a former park service employee, calls the government's stance "misguided."

She says Neutra (pronounced NOY-tra), an Austrian native who died in 1970, was a master of Modern design, and the Cyclorama building one of his most significant works.

French contends the building has historic significance - though of a more recent type than the battlefield itself - because it was one of the first visitors' centers erected in national parks to handle the surge in attendance that began after the Second World War.

"Her group is fighting to raise awareness that such notable Modern buildings are "essentially American and should be protected."

David Woodcock, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M; University and a member of the historic preservation committee of the American Institute of Architects, says the Cyclorama dispute is a particularly tough call. The park service did hire leading architects of the time such as Neutra to design a batch of new visitors centers in the 1950s and 1960s.

"The idea was that federal architecture should represent the best of who we are at the time," he says. Yet buildings are more than artistic expressions, he notes.

"You really would not want to throw a symphony away," he says. "On the other hand, buildings are not music. They do have a life. They have to be useful and meet contemporary needs."

If Wayne and Candace Malone's reaction is any guide, the public is just as conflicted. The couple dropped by the park one chilly day in December on a day trip from their home in Fort Loudon, Pa.

"We would like to keep the building," Wayne Malone says when informed it was designed by a famous architect. His wife recalls its opening and says the structure had struck her then as "very different and Modern."

But when told that a new visitors center was under construction, and that officials had said the painting was to be moved there because it could be better preserved and displayed there, Wayne Malone says: "I do not have a problem with it."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

To see a list of architecturally significant, Modern structures in the state, go to: www.baltimoresun.com/preserve.

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