One of the constant conundrums that national parks face is the balancing of preservation and conservation with accessibility and enjoyment. Part of the mission of parks is to provide for the enjoyment of its visitors, which involves the development of nationally significant natural and/or historic sites into parks.
Like all national parks, the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park (FRSP) is often developing new trails, signs, and providing or improving ways for its visitors’ enjoyment. There have been two periods when intense and concentrated park development has occurred: the initial park development under the War Department, National Park Service and Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and the Mission 66 period in the 1960s. While the first focused on creating roads and preparing the park for its first visitors, the second sought to upgrade and expand facilities and interpretive opportunities for both visitors and park staff. The most visible element of the Mission 66 development at FRSP is the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center (CVC), which was, and continues to be, the subject of some controversy, scrutiny and criticism.
From the beginning, CVC has been criticized for its modernistic appearance and its location within the midst of a significant battlefield landscape. This discussion will involve a series of posts, looking at the decision to build a visitor center at Chancellorsville, the choosing of a location for the building, its construction, and its service to the visitors for the last 50 years.
Decision to Build CVC
Beginning in 1956, FRSP, with the benefit of the Mission 66 program, pursued the funding and approval necessary for a new visitor center at Chancellorsville. It should be noted that NPS planners during the Mission 66 period coined the term “visitor center.” Up to that point, park visitor facilities were often referred to as museums and administrative buildings. Such was the case with the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building, now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. This change in name reflected a change in focus for park facilities from providing simply information to visitor orientation and interpretation.
The park felt a strong desire for a new visitor center, in addition to the existing facility at Fredericksburg. The need was best summed up by NPS staff in Washington:
“The situation at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania is perhaps unique within the National Park System. Here are commemorated four major battles of the Civil War. All were critical engagements, and the years covered run from 1862 to 1864. At present there is one visitor center building at Fredericksburg itself. This was not designed for a modern interpretive center, but it is the plan to make use of it. By some remodeling and by the use of two basement rooms which will definitely be makeshift, it will be possible to cover the Fredericksburg phase of the battle there. There will be no space, however, to treat the battles of Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness, and there is no storage space. A visitor center at Chancellorsville is needed to tell the story of the other three battles and to tie together the entire campaign, as well as to provide adequate storage.”
Once the decision had been made to construct a new visitor center at Chancellorsville Battlefield, the next step was to choose a location. That debate is covered here.
Eric J. Mink