In 1941, the US National Park Service acquired one of numerous versions of a 360 degree cyclorama, an in-the-round painting of the turning point in the great rebellion against the American union at Gettysburg in July 1863. First painted 20 years after the battle, the panels filled a drum 80 feet in diameter. In 1957, as part of ‘Mission 66’, which sought to vastly enhance and expand visitor and interpretive centers in the national parks by engaging distinguished modern architects to design them, Richard Neutra, then in partnership with Robert Alexander, was invited to develop a proposal for the Gettysburg site that would find a more dignified observatory for the surviving cyclorama, provide an overview of the battlefield itself, and expand services to the increased number of visitors anticipated during the centennial of the Civil War.
Neutra’s conception of the programme far transcended this brief. Believing that ‘the sad memory of a still painful rift could by the erection of a monumental building … commemorate what mankind must preserve as a common aim of harmony’, his designs called for a site of international and human reconciliation served by a 300 foot long exhibition pavilion; an auditorium; a rotunda to encase the cyclorama rising 60 feet from the ground; a plaza extending into the landscape overlooking the field of conflict from the point of view of the painted panels; and – two features lost in the eventual development – an observation tower and a reflecting pool designed to mirror that ‘everlasting sky that covers all of us’.