The Gettysburg National Tower – What was the preservationist strategy?

A recent news article concerning a preservation effort got me to thinking back to some earlier successes.  I’ll admit there’s a radical streak in me when it comes to battlefield preservation.  But there are practicalities to consider, which of course serve to moderate the situation.  That’s why I often look back to “the history of preservation” for lessons learned and insight, while putting the practicalities and purpose in perspective.

Consider the old Gettysburg National Tower.  I am showing my age to say I remember the days when it stood over the field.  Yes it has been almost 13 years, hasn’t it?

Last day for the Gettysburg Tower, late afternoon July 2, 2000

But I’m also showing my youth to say I don’t recall, first hand, the controversies that surrounded its erection.  The tower’s story is one of the sparks that ignited the modern preservation movement.  Civil War News offered coverage of the demolition, noting the background and schedule for demolition, back in 2000.

Thomas R. Ottenstein went public with plans for a 300-foot observation tower in 1970.  When several governmental and private organizations pushed back at the original proposed location, Ottenstein set his eyes on a new location.  Just east of the Taneytown Road and south of the National Cemetery was privately owned ground offering a spot for the tower.  After some negotiations, Ottenstein’s company struck a deal, which was not all-together on the up-and-up, with the Department of the Interior.  The government granted an easement and consented to the placement (and in return the some proceeds from the tower were supposed to go towards preservation, but for several reasons never did).

But the deal didn’t clear the way by a long sight.  Citing the National Historic Preservation Act, opponents – which included the state of Pennsylvania – fought a running legal battle against the tower.  But preservationists and allies lost in the courtrooms.  By 1974 the tower was reality, and visible from almost every corner of the battlefield.

The Tower, from Culp's Hill observation tower

Of course the story didn’t end there.  The National Park Service “regrouped,” you might say.  In 1990, with no small pressure, a law extended the boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park to include the ground where the tower stood.  But of course that line on the map didn’t mean a thing without ownership of the property.

An appraisal of the tower and grounds put the value at $6.6 million.  That, you must agree, would be a sizable sum even today.  So in 1993, the National Park Service balked at the price.  Not until 1999 did funding appear for the project.  Still legal issues dogged closure.  Eventually the government condemned the property, opting to arbitrate the final price out in the courts. That action, of course, allowed the implosion of the tower on July 3, 2000, using about $1 million in donated time and materials from  Controlled Demolition Inc.

Great, you say.  Preservation win by undoing development.  Most will agree in the absence of that tower the world is a better place.  But why do I bring this up? Well consider one of the lessons learned mentioned by John Latschar, the Gettysburg park superintendent at the time of the tower’s removal:

… Simply put, it’s worth the time and effort to do things right the first time – even though the cost or the effort “doing right” may often seem daunting.  If NPS and the Department of the Interior had stood more strongly against the building of the tower in the early days, it might not have happened.  However, instead of standing on our collective principles, we opted for “compromise,” with disastrous results.  In trying to explain … why NPS had abandoned the fight against the tower, the agency explained that its agreement with Ottenstein was based upon the belief that it could do nothing to stop the tower.

The lesson mentioned by Latschar speaks directly to the “strategy” employed by preservationists in their efforts.  Should preservation efforts stand firm against development efforts in the courts – of both law and public opinion – in an effort to secure historical resources?  Should those efforts leverage the laws on the books, to include environmental and preservation laws, to impede development?

Or should preservationists be amenable, accommodating while looking for an opportunity?  And then, should preservationists simply “pick up the pieces” where development has occurred to make the best of it?

If you pick up a copy of Civil War News today, you will notice a story in the February edition which I think has some common elements with the Gettysburg National Tower story.  I’ll not name any names or particulars.  Decide for yourself as to the resonance.


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