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Besieged Gettysburg tower to come tumbling down

Thursday, June 22, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

To Civil War preservationists, it was the evil tower.

To aggressive businessmen, it was money in the bank.

Now, it's about to become rubble.

Doomsday is July 3 for the Gettysburg National Tower, the 307-foot tourist attraction that, depending on your point of view, either graced or disgraced America's most-visited Civil War park.

The U.S. government, which runs Gettysburg National Military Park, went to court and this month seized control of the privately run tower through its eminent domain powers.

Still to be determined is how much public money must be paid to the tower and land owners, who have complained that the government has trampled them in the name of political correctness.

"It's a strange thing to me that somebody can come in, take over land, take over a tower, and then start discussing what should be paid," said Hans Enggren, owner of the 6.5 acres where the tower sits.

A total of $3 million in taxpayers' money has been placed in an escrow account to eventually help compensate Enggren and the tower owners, Tom Ottenstein and his Overview Limited Partnership. That amount may be only a start toward the cost.

An appraisal ordered by the National Park Service in 1993 pegged the tower's value at $6.6 million. Enggren maintains it is worth even more in today's market.

Arguments on the fair value of the tower should play out late next month in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

The government's more immediate concern is obliterating the tower from the Central Pennsylvania skyline on a day when Gettysburg has the whole country's attention.

July 3 was chosen for the demolition because that's when Gettysburg will be jammed with tourists and Civil War re-enactors. It also was the only day the demolition contractor would do the job for free.

The date marks the 137th anniversary of the climactic third day of the battle of Gettysburg, when Union soldiers stopped the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania and Gen. Robert E. Lee lost 15,000 men.

So great are the possibilities for publicity that Controlled Demolition Inc. and its proprietors, the Loizeaux family of Baltimore, won't receive a penny for a $1 million job. They will, however, get salvage rights to the tower's parts.

Gettysburg national park Superintendent John Latschar said media attention already is intense, including requests from television networks to time the demolition for optimum ratings.

"The Today Show," Latschar said, asked that the tower be felled in the morning so it could cover the event live. The park service, though, has resisted such pressures and stuck to its original schedule of 5 p.m. Eastern time.

Publicity is something the tower has always attracted -- almost all of it bad.

Opened in 1974 after thwarting lawsuits led by then-Gov. Milton J. Shapp, the tower has been a magnet for critics. Many said it exemplified a lack of respect for important historic sites.

"My children grew up in Gettysburg and they called it the evil tower," said Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.

That image, taken from the J.R.R. Tolkien novel "The Lord of the Rings," remains so strong that two of his grown sons are traveling from New York and North Carolina to watch the reviled tower finally come down.

Modern-day Gettysburg has always mixed tacky tourism with important history. T-shirt and trinket shops abut cemeteries and the battlefield. But none of this stirred Civil War buffs the way the tower did.

"Fundamentally, Gettysburg is such a lovely, bucolic town. The tower always seemed out of place on sacred ground," Boritt said.

After the tower was annexed into the national military park 10 years ago, preservationists revived their campaign to destroy it. U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose agency oversees the park service, promised in 1999 that it would be leveled before he left office this year.

Even with such opposition, the tower was a money-making business for a quarter-century. One reason is that it provided a unique look at the 5,800-acre battlefield, where 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died, were wounded or were captured in the three days of fighting.

Many of the 1.5 million visitors who come to Gettysburg each year enjoyed the tower, said Michael McCloskey, owner of an emporium that caters to tourists.

"I haven't heard from a single visitor that it was harmful. It provided a good perspective on the terrain and the battle," he said.

For his part, McCloskey considered the hunk of steel, bolts and telescopes "an eyesore that stuck out in a place where it didn't seem to belong."

Still, like many merchants in town, he is sympathetic to the tower owners, saying the government's eminent domain takeover was a frightening use of power.

Enggren, who emigrated from Sweden and went into business by opening a Gettysburg motel in the 1950s, said he never thought he would lose his land this way.

He won't be with the tens of thousands who gather to watch the tower fall on the eve of Independence Day.

"That would be too painful," he said.

But Boritt and throngs of Civil War preservationists wouldn't miss the tower's demise.

"It will be a nice celebration," he said.

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