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Gettysburg visitors center will add to Civil War attractions

December 19, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - As plans for a Smithsonian Civil War museum in Hagerstown move forward, a proposed $39 million visitor's center and museum at Gettysburg National Military Park recently cleared a major hurdle.

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The National Park Service last month approved plans to tear down the battlefield's visitor's center and nearby Cyclorama, built in an area of the battlefield where heavy fighting took place.

A new 15-acre complex will be built on the outskirts of the battlefield, about a half mile away.

The plan was controversial and unique, largely because it calls on a private company to raise the money and build the center.

The new building will allow the park to preserve and display its extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, the largest within the park service, said park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon. Its opening is still three to five years away.

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Meanwhile, the Antietam Creek Coalition hopes to open a Civil War museum in Hagerstown by September 2002 at a cost of $30 million to $40 million.

"We're way ahead of them in planning, coordination and cooperation," said coalition member Dennis Frye.

But the coalition is still working on the details of its plan, backed by the Hagerstown City Council and Washington County Commissioners.

It's also still working on an affiliation with the Smithsonian, which is key to its success.

Frye said the Hagerstown museum has the advantage of being free of the National Park Service's bureaucracy.

Gettysburg park officials have been working on a new visitor's center for four years, as part of its long-range plan for the park. The park has held more than 30 public meetings and received 4,000 public comments, Lawhon said.

Frye envisions the Hagerstown museum as a hub of tourism, with Gettysburg as one spoke.

The Hagerstown museum will have a broader scope in telling the entire story of the Civil War, from the ante-bellum period through Reconstruction.

"This is not going to be a bullets and buckles museum," Frye said.

The Gettysburg museum will focus on telling the story of that three-day battle in July 1863 to its 1.7 million visitors a year, Lawhon said.

Most of the park's 42,000 artifacts and 350,000 documents were donated by the Rosensteel family of Gettysburg, which began collecting them right after the battle ended. The family is now suing the park service over the way the artifacts are being stored.

In the basement of the visitor's center, Civil War-era swords are slowly rusting and mildew is growing on leather ammunition bags.

Only 8 percent of the 42,000-piece collection is on display, said Curator Michael Vice. When the new museum is built, it will exhibit about 20 percent at a time.

The park is constructing a temporary storage building that has temperature and humidity control.

"We want these to be preserved for your children's children," Lawhon said.

Besides their subject matter, the two museum proposals have another connection to each other.

Antietam Creek Coalition member Randy Harper helped submit a proposal at Gettysburg. His group's plan was not chosen, Lawhon said.

The museum proposals will be competing to raise money from Civil War history enthusiasts. In addition, a National Civil War Museum is being developed in Harrisburg, Pa.

All are trying to ride the wave of increasing interest in the Civil War since Ken Burns' series on PBS and the movie "Gettysburg."

Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John Howard hopes both the Gettysburg and Hagerstown museums succeed.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for the area as far as historical tourism," said Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John Howard.

Unlike the Gettysburg proposal, which generated opposition from nearby businesses that rely on tourism dollars, the Hagerstown museum has the support of the community, Frye said.

In addition to the new museum and visitor's center, Gettysburg also wants to restore many areas of the battlefield to their 1863 condition.

In the next 20 years, the park service plans to spend $63 million removing woods, planting orchards and building fences.

Some historians, including Frye, believe that Gettysburg can never be fully restored because of the nearby commercial development.

"This concept of battlefield restoration at Gettysburg is fantasy," he said.

Some Civil War purists, including Tom Clemens of Keedysville, don't like to visit Gettysburg because of the surrounding commercialism.

One of his friends has dubbed it "Greedysburg."

"It makes me very sad and very disgusted. It seems like everyone there is trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the tourists," he said.

Clemens is skeptical of the park service plan.

He agrees that the park needs a new visitor's center and that it should be moved.

But he's concerned because some fighting, although fewer casualties, still occurred at the new location.

"It's sort of an awkward tradeoff at best," he said.

Antietam National Battlefield will face similar challenges when its visitor's center becomes obsolete in 15 to 20 years, Howard said.

The current visitor's center was built in the 1960s in the middle of the battlefield at Sharpsburg.

A new location will be hard to find since the land surrounding the park is protected by scenic easements, he said.

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