Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 3


From Mink:

Part 1 of this discussion can be found here

Part 2 of this discussion can be found here

The decision to locate the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center north of State Route 3 was made in order to keep the complex out of what local park officials felt was the “heart of the battlefield” – the area between and around Hazel Grove and Fairview. Avoidance of impacts on the Hazel Grove-Fairview landscape resulted, however, in the impact on what Historian Ralph Happel called “the dramatic point which people want to see and walk around” – the site of Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding.

Construction

Park staff were well aware of the key resources north State Route 3. Historian Albert Dillahunty referenced these resources in his December 1958 memo to Superintendent Northington:

“A visitor center south of the road would be cut off from the dramatic Jackson Monument area by the four-lane highway. To put the center north of the road, the Jackson Monument, grave of unknown Union soldier, trace of Old Mountain Road and the quartz boulder placed during the late 19th century to mark the place where Jackson fell could be left in a buffer strip between the highway and the visitor center to be treated as an exhibit in place.” (Memo, dated December 24, 1958, Albert Dillahunty to Superintendent, FRSP, copy in FRSP files)

It is interesting that Dillahunty mentions the Mountain Road trace in this memo, as its consideration as a resource is often overlooked. The Mountain Road is the small woods road that Stonewall Jackson and his entourage were traveling on when fired upon by the 18th North Carolina Infantry. While the approximate site of Jackson’s wounding is a short distance east of the visitor center, the road trace ran from Bullock Road, paralleling Orange Plank Road, eastward for about a mile.

While the Mountain Road may have received some consideration during the visitor center planning stages, there appears to have been little outcry about the possible impacts construction would create.

A close-up of the grading plan reveals that the architects were well aware of the road trace and that the construction of the center on this location would destroy a section of the road. In retracing the route of Jackson’s evening of May 2 ride, the Mountain Road runs right through the museum exhibits in the center. The location of his wounding and the portion of road traceto the east were outside the construction zone and left relatively intact.

$270,000 for the new visitor center appeared in the budget for fiscal year 1961, thus opening the door for construction. The low bid of $262,687.50 was awarded to a contractor from Richmond, Va. and construction on the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and its associated structures began toward the end of 1961.

The new visitor center, with installed exhibits, was completed by the spring of 1963 and the dedication and official opening of the facility was set for May 5, in the midst of the centennial commemoration of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Dedication

Approximately 500 people turned out for the dedication of the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center. Those on the program included: Superintendent Northington; Conrad L. Wirth, Director of the NPS; Mills E. Godwin, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia; John A. Carver, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Interior; and Dr. James I. Robertson, Executive Director of the National Civil War Centennial Committee.

Most of the remarks were predictable and standard for such occasions. There was much talk of the battle’s history and the success of the Mission 66 program, which funded the new facility. Perhaps the most interesting of the comments were those that the assembled crowd never heard.

In reporting his public remarks, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star quoted Assistant Secretary Carver as follows:

“From these fields emerged the stream of history in which an adolescent nation was transposed from a pawn of world politics into the symbol of hope for those who aspired to be free…the centennial period of the war itself will have soon passed and we shall enter a period that parallels by a century the time of America’s greatest expansion. I hope we can be similarly engrossed in drawing upon the constructive accomplishments which both preceded and followed the darkness of a century ago. I hope we will devote our time and attention and financial resources to the preservation of the natural beauty of this country.” (“Century After: Chancellorsville Center Dedicated,” Free Lance-Star, May 6, 1963)

Following the program, Carver slipped his notes to a reporter, hinting that he had not said everything that he wanted to. He simply requested, with a smile: “Don’t let me look too critical.”

In his original speech notes, which found their way into newsprint, Carver criticized the style of buildings, such as the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, that the Mission 66 program was developing within national parks. Carver believed that the National Park Service and Department of the Interior had a responsibility “to keep in mind always that good design is an obligation we owe.”

“Whether it be at one of our great natural parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite or the smaller jewels of history or archaeology like Painted Desert, Petrified Forest or Colonial National Historic Park, we have governmentally an obligation to bring to the visitor a quality of warmth and friendliness, an aesthetic response for these structures which must intrude in some measure – they weren’t here at the time.

In these days of commercialism and mass production, we have developed proficiency at producing functional products. This kind of mass produced functionalism…is not oriented to national park and recreational development.

Perhaps you will deduce from this that I as one individual am less than enthusiastic about the moderness of this particular structure. You are right.

Perhaps only one visitor in a hundred will get the feel of Chancellorsville by walking the ground itself – by ‘walking through’ the maneuvers conceived by the brilliantly audacious Lee and carried out by Jackson and Stuart; or by standing in Hooker’s tracks to grope ‘for the secret of his paralysis.

The other 99 will remember Chancellorsville by the visitor center itself.” (“Too Modern? Official is Cool to Center Design,” Free Lance-Star, May 6, 1963)

Carver’s unspoken opinion on the visitor center’s style and appearance highlights a common criticism that was, and still is, leveled against the Mission 66 program. For many, the modern appearance of these structures did not fit into the “rustic” character of national parks.

Criticism aside, Mission 66 brought new visitor centers to parks and provided new interpretive opportunities. Nearly fifty years later, those opportunities seized in 1963 are still being used at Chancellorsville. This is covered in the final post on the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center found here.

Eric J. Mink

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3 thoughts on “Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 3

  1. Eric, great post. My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the battlefields in that area last week. She has found joy in walking these fields with me under the guise of “nature walk.” After reading your latest post here, I realized that the Chancellorsville visitor center was the least memorable part of the experience. I am even struggling to remember the 20-minute video we paid two bucks to see. We spent most of our time studying the maps, reading books and guides, listening to the park’s CD tour, and of course, walking the fields. We found that the combination of the four really completed the experience and none of them by themselves did justice. Exploring the fields in this fashion was a far more enriching experience for us. The visitor center did not add to this experience and the only contributing factor was the $8.95 CD tours.

    Your post also made me realize the sparseness of onlookers of the fields. Fredericksburg and Stonewall’s Shrine were different stories, but Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania had at most four people at each site (I do not include local joggers). Often, my wife and I were completely alone to explore. Perhaps the reason was that other visitors were overwhelmed by the battlefields with little more than a foldout map to guide them.

    I am not sure if I have any firm conclusions or opinions on your topic other than to say that the current visitor center is very inadequate. I hate to compare it to the Gettysburg visitor center, the Disneyland of Civil War battlefields, but I go there often. At Gettysburg, I always take newcomers to see the intro movie, the Cyclorama, then the battlefield, and finally the museum. All of these add to the experience of the visit to the site. My next trip to Chancellorsville will exclude the visitor center.

  2. Scott – Thanks for your frank and honest impression of the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center. I think that even among our staff we would agree that the visitor center’s exhibits are not as inspiring as we’d like them to be. Most of them are nearing 50 years old, but we have made some recent improvements in the form of a couple new exhibits that have been installed within the last couple months. We hope that our visitors will notice these spot improvements.
    Your comments are a perfect lead-in to my final post on this building, which will be to look at the visitor center, half a century later. Thanks for reading.
    – Eric

  3. I visited Chancellorsville for the first time in the late 1960s. I remember noticing (even as a teenager) that the low profile allowed the woods to dominate the site. It was all rather dramatic. I have since come to recognize that its placement might have been more sensitive to the wounding site and some aspects of the displays may be considered dated, but at the time I was impressed with the facility and motivated to get out and explore the battlefield. Of all the visitor facilities at FSNMP, Chancellorsville was/is the best.

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