GETTYSBURG, Pa. - For almost 40 years, the visitor center here was more than just a front-row seat on the Gettysburg battlefield.

The complex, surrounded by acres of asphalt, sat directly on what many consider sacred ground: the Army of the Potomac's defensive line on bloody Cemetery Ridge, from which the Union troops fended off the Confederates during the first three days of July 1863.

The visitor center "was right in the middle of what we were trying to preserve and protect," said Scott Hartwig, supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.

The opening of the new $103 million Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center tomorrow is nearly the culmination of a 14-year plan to relocate the hub of tourist activity well away from the battle lines of the defining North-South clash of 160,000 men, and to restore Cemetery Ridge to the way it looked that summer 145 years ago.

"We got the visitor center off the sacred ground," park superintendent John Latschar said. "No fighting took place here. No one died here."

Roughly two-thirds of a mile from the old center, the 139,000-square-foot complex resembles a traditional central Pennsylvania farmstead, with a native granite facade and recycled barn timbers. Beginning this fall, a round barn will house the monumental cyclorama painting depicting Gen. George Pickett's ill-starred charge of Confederate infantry up Cemetery Ridge.

The museum is almost double the size of the old one, which the National Park Service opened in 1971.

It will house 300,000 artifacts and 700,000 archival documents. Only about 7 percent of the collection will be exhibited, but the items "will be displayed in context," Latschar said. "The old museum had racks of weapons, but they didn't teach anything."

Among the featured treasures: Robert E. Lee's camp desk, a door from abolitionist John Brown's jail cell in Harpers Ferry, and a bullet-scarred, pocket-size Manual of the Christian Soldier, carried at Gettysburg by John Cassidy of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The bullet that passed through the book killed Cassidy during Pickett's Charge up Cemetery Ridge on July 3, the climactic action in the battle.

The project, discussed as far back as 14 years ago, picked up steam only in 2000 when builder Robert Kinsley donated the 50-acre site to the Gettysburg Foundation.

The $103 million cost of construction - paid with state, federal and private contributions - is more than 21/2 times the original estimate.

Factors such as the incorporation of green energy systems and a huge price increase for restoring the cyclorama - from a projected $1 million to $15 million - could not have been foreseen, said Dru Anne Neil, communications director for the Gettysburg Foundation. The nonprofit group, which oversaw all fund-raising, will operate the center under a 20-year lease with the National Park Service.

The cyclorama will not be ready for viewing until Sept. 26. Meanwhile, visitors can stroll through the Civil War narrative via 11 compact galleries, from the early tensions over states' rights to the first skirmish at Gettysburg and the aftermath of the pivotal battle.

"The story is told through four voices: the commanders, the common soldiers, the civilians and the correspondents," said Robert Wilburn, Gettysburg Foundation president.

A separate gallery has been set aside for President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered 41/2 months after the battle at the dedication of the war cemetery. The document is not in the museum, but the text is set artistically on a wall, accompanied by actor Sam Waterson's reading of the words that Lincoln thought "the world will little note, nor long remember."

A 22-minute movie, A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, gives a dramatic overview of the historical and political landscape.

"We tried to pull back the veil that has obscured the story of the Civil War," said producer Donna Lawrence of Louisville, Ky. "We wanted to look at why the battle was a turning point and why it has such meaning for us."

In another area, visitors can tap computer stations to see whether their ancestors fought here and follow troop movements on a touch screen.

Ultimately, the centerpiece of the museum will be the cyclorama, artist Paul Philippoteaux's 377-foot-long, 42-foot-high masterwork, completed in 1884.

Since 2005, Olin Conservation Inc. has been repairing damaged sections of canvas and restoring elements of the wraparound view.

"Our goal is to preserve what's left of the artist's original intent," chief conservator David Olin said.

Next year, the old visitor center - a 1921 farmhouse with an amalgam of additions - will be torn down and its surrounding sea of asphalt ripped up. Orchards will be replanted, and original fence lines and meadows restored in the area known as Ziegler's Grove.

Along with the return of seven historic monuments to the site, a small ravine paved over in the 1960s will be excavated. The ravine was a weak point in the Union line targeted by Confederate troops.

Yet to be resolved is the fate of the old cyclorama building next door, designed by renowned architect Richard Neutra in 1961.

Federal preservation agencies gave the go-ahead for demolition. However, in 2006, the Recent Past Preservation Network, a group dedicated to preserving modern architecture, sued the Park Service to save the structure, calling it a rare East Coast example of Neutra's civic architecture. The suit is pending in federal court in Washington.

If You Go

The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center will be open daily beginning tomorrow.

Where: Accessible from the Taneytown Road or Baltimore Pike exit off U.S. 15 in Gettysburg.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in spring and fall, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter.

Tickets: Museum admission is free. Tickets to the feature film A New Birth of Freedom are $8 for visitors 13 and older, $6.50 for ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and younger.

Beginning Sept. 26, combined admission to the film, the newly opened Gettysburg Cyclorama painting, and related exhibits will be $12 for adults and $10 for youths.

For more information, call 1-866-889-1243 or visit www.gettysburg

foundation.org or www.nps.gov/gett.

SOURCE: Associated Press

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Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.