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A Modernist's Masterworks, Loved and Lost

This week the Press will be at the Society of Architectural Historians annual meeting in Buffalo. In this post, our assistant managing editor, Mark Mones, shares his thoughts on some titles that will be on exhibit there...

The celebrated modernist architect Richard Neutra (1892-1970) figures prominently in several recently published UVa Press volumes, and with his work we are faced with the enduring questions of how we define, honor, and struggle with history.

Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs was the western retreat for the family that commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. In 1937, he designed a modern house—his first outside California—for Pan Am pilot and executive George Kraigher in Brownsville, Texas. The subject of an entry in the just-released Buildings of Texas: Central, South, and Gulf Coast (written by Gerald Moorhead with seven prominent coauthors), the Kraigher House is a preservationist's success story. Derelict and decaying, this luminous home was carefully rehabilitated by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College in 2007, to welcome and inspire a new generation of architects, historians, and visitors.

The fifty-year history of one of Neutra's most important non-residential commissions, the Cyclorama Center in Gettysburg, is recounted at length in Christine Madrid French's essay in Public Nature: Scenery, History, and Park Design, a new volume edited by Ethan Carr, Shaun Eyring, and Richard Guy Wilson. Carefully positioned in Ziegler's Grove on Cemetery Ridge, its rooftop ramp allowed visitors to scan the landscape from south to north, from the sites of the repulse of Pickett's Charge to the dais from which Lincoln's Gettysburg Address echoed. The center recalled "the essential link between the mass battle of 1863 and the mass culture of the present," as succinctly summarized in Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, by George Thomas and his five coauthors. Here too a battle ensued, this time between preservationists and Civil War historians, who struggled with which history should be safeguarded. Following a protracted lawsuit, the Cyclorama was razed this past month, just shy of the 150th anniversary of the conflict that saved the Union.

How to reconcile these diametrically opposed outcomes? The Kraigher and Kaufmann houses speak to our fascination with the recent past, as evidenced in the popularity and the settings of such shows as "Mad Men," while the Cyclorama's demolition privileges our longer national story. If both are worthy of attention, there are clearly no easy answers here.

As a freshman at Gettysburg College in the late 1970s, I spent a fair amount of time exploring the battlefield, walking the length of Cemetery Ridge and the rise of the Cyclorama ramp. For me, the Neutra center was warm and welcoming, an expanse of glass and terrazzo leading to a large cast-cement drum that housed Paul Philippoteaux's circular panorama painting of the battle. This is how I'll always recall the place, graced by that modernist memorial, no more intrusive than the Beaux-Arts marble mass of the Pennsylvania Monument to the south. And though historians of our great national conflict may applaud the landscape's restoration, at least to its late-nineteenth-century appearance, something intangible, perhaps our generation's rediscovery of the enduring significance of that conflict, has nonetheless been sadly and irrevocably lost.

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