October 24, 2010

Observations On/From Towers

Last May, while solving the problem of Gettysburg and reuniting the opposing forces of History--Civil War battlefield aficionados seeking to "restore" the "hallowed ground" of Cemetery Ridge and the modernists and historical preservationists who wish to stop them from demolishing Richard Neutra's Cyclorama building--I myself was smitten by the archival/architectural awesomeness of the steel observation tower [below], which was built by the War Department in 1895 on the [equally hallowed, I'm sure] Confederate line.
gettysburg_war_dept_twr.jpg

[My idea, of course, is to adapt Neutra's ramp-centered structure into a disabled/wheelchair-accessible observation platform, an accommodation which is sorely lacking in the current Park Service program for the site, and then to integrate a museum/memorial to the tens of thousands of soldiers wounded--and disabled--in the battle. We're so quick to memorialize those who were lost, while forgetting or ignoring those who survived, and have to grapple for the rest of their lives with the effects of war.]

Anyway, two added pieces of information:

While I have not been able to find much in the way of history or documentation for the 1895 towers [there used to be five; now there are 2.5], I have discovered two accounts of a re-enactment of Pickett's Charge in July 1922, on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of the battle. On July 2 President Warren G. Harding and his wife observed a rehearsal re-enactment by 5,000 marines and veterans from an observation tower [since removed] on Cemetery Ridge itself.

[Bonus architectural note: The President and Mrs. Harding were quartered at the Marine camp in what the New York Times called, "a temporary White House of canvas and wood. The structure is equipped with elaborately fitted sleeping rooms, baths, electric lights and even has a front porch." A search for photos has already begun. update: and may be over. Is this it, from the LOC?]

harding_gettysburg_wht_loc.jpg

Another account, dated July 4th, after the Hardings had departed, comes from Mrs Helen Longstreet, the widow of the Commander of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg. It's not clear, but I like to imagine that she observed the re-enactment--"staged today with marvelous accuracy in every detail, exactly as I have heard General Longstreet describe it hundreds of times"--from the still-extant observation tower on the field:

As the twilight of this calm July day deepened into dusk I overtook one of "Longstreet's boys," a one-armed veteran, trudging wearily "up Emmitsburg Road."

"Where did you lose your arm?" I inquired. He answered: "In Pickett's charge; and it was powerful hard to lose my arm and be whipped, too; and what was the use of it?"

Someone standing near pointed to the Observation Tower and said: "Do you see the flag that floats up there? The stars on its blue field are all the brighter, its red stripe all the deeper, its white stripe all the purer, because you left an arm in front of Cemetery Hill in Pickett's charge. That was the use of it. That was the good of it."

And so the tread of marching armies and the roar of cannon over the Summer lands of Pennsylvania call the American people to express the value of the titanic struggles of the '60s in deeper love and pride of country.

And the other thing, holy moley, have you seen the observation tower built by the Graz/Munich-based landscape design firm Terrain in a nature preserve along the Mur River in Styria, Austria?? 27.5 meters high, double rectangular spiral of black steel and tension rods, plus aluminum staircases.

terrain_tower_mur_wide.jpg

Not that I thought anyone might be wavering on the architectural merits of observation towers or anything, just, wow.

terrain_obs_tower_mur.jpg

[images: just two of many at Abitare]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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