Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Atlanta Cyclorama: Restoration, relocation will make it whole, highlight backstories

1886 photograph of painting showing Decatur Road.
The painting was cut to fit into its home at Grant Park in Atlanta.
Here is what the section looks like today before restoration. (Images: AHC)

• NEW! June 2015 update on plans for Cyclorama

If the chaos, valor and blood-letting that occurred on the afternoon of July 22, 1864, are enshrined forever by the Atlanta Cyclorama, so, too, are the fascinating backstories of what was included in the massive painting and how it has been presented over the years.

German artists created the work – which has a circumference of 358 feet – to commemorate a momentous Northern victory at the Battle of Atlanta. 

The 360-degree painting, which has been housed at the city’s Grant Park since 1921, will be restored and moved to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, city and museum officials announced Wednesday. Construction on a special annex at the AHC will begin in summer 2015.

Gordon L. Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center, said the new home will allow visitors to see the mural hanged in the proper way, providing the visual 3-D presentation its creators had envisioned.

Unfortunately, the painting had to be trimmed to fit into the building at Grant Park and could not be properly presented. A 6-feet-wide by 50-feet-tall section of the Cyclorama that was cut out will be re-created. Experts also will create a new area of sky lost in the same process. 

Painted in Milwaukee, the Cyclorama eventually moved to the South, where it became a “living tribute to the Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, said Jones.

“This is Atlanta. This is the thing you went to see when you were kid. Now it will be able to tell some new stories.”

Preliminary sketch for what would later be painted (AHC)

Jones said there are many tidbits associated with the mural. Among them:

-- The artists created the Cyclorama in 1885-1886. While making sketches in Atlanta, they worked from a tower at Moreland and DeKalb avenues to get the proper perspective. “That is as close as to what it looked like as we will ever see,” said Jones.

-- Painters had Federal veterans show them what they wore and how they were equipped for battle.

-- The Cyclorama contains the soaring Old Abe, the eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers. Just one problem: The regiment and Old Abe were in Mississippi at the time of the battle.

-- When it was shown in Chattanooga in 1891, a promoter had a group of Confederate POWs repainted as fleeing Union soldiers. In the 1930s, Atlanta artist-historian Wilbur Kurtz put the POWs back in, but did not restore a Union soldier carrying a captured Rebel flag.

-- One of the dying soldiers (above) in the diorama in front of the painting has the face of actor Clark Gable, star of “Gone With the Wind.” Don’t worry. He and the rest of the diorama will be making the move to Buckhead. “All of Atlanta would recoil if we took Rhett Butler off the painting,” Jones told the Picket.

– As for the accuracy of the battle scene? “Not everything that happened in the painting happened all at once.” The best-recognized feature is the brick, hip-roofed Troup-Hurt house -- a little nearer in the painting than it was actually situated, according to the National Park Service. The focal point is the area around the house, with South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama troops.

-- To reproduce the preliminary drawing of the battle scene, sets of 10 photos were made of the entire length and distributed to the artists working on the painting.  "We now have seven of the ten – a great aid to restoration – but we do not have the section covering the Decatur Road – only the photo of the finished painting," said Jones.

The restoration of the Cyclorama, which will begin at its current site and continue at the Atlanta History Center, will be the beneficiary of enhanced technology over the past three decades.

A sketch of Union Maj. Gen. John A. Logan leading the charge. (AHC)

A model is the renowned cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park. It received a new backing and a system for stretching the fabric, properly balancing its weight. Visitors there have been impressed by the light and sound presentation. Jones said he and others are still developing plans for the Atlanta presentation.

“The cyclorama paintings were to be 3-D experiences,” said Jones. “In order to get that … the horizon is closer to the central viewing point than the top and bottom."

While the Atlanta Cyclorama is properly secured at top, it hangs like a shower curtain, putting strain on the fabric and not permitting the desired visual effect. Attempts to address that problem have not been successful.

Experts will have to smooth wrinkles and reattach the 14 sections that make up the mural.

“The painting will be on a new backing and the backing (will) be suspended from two rings, one overhead, one at the bottom. The one at the bottom has to be weighted to properly keep its shape,” said the curator. The idea is to return the original hourglass shape.

Because of humidity and other factors, the linen fabric and its mountings will have to be adjustable, even in a state-of-the-art facility.

Jones likens the popular cycloramas of the late 19th century to be the IMAX theaters of their day. Eventually, Nickelodeons virtually put them out of business.

Detail from "The Battle of Atlanta" at Grant Park

Patrons will be interested in the technology of such paintings and how the Civil War was interpreted at the time, Jones said.

Atlanta History Center officials said their facility has the infrastructure, expertise and financing to assure the painting’s long-term survival.

“To me, it speaks to the deep kind of heartfelt emotion that goes with the war,” Jones said. “The desire of the postwar generation to capture their experience and show it to everybody: ‘This is how we did it.’ It is different from a monument on battlefield. It is trying to show before the days of movies ‘here we fought and we saved the Union.’”

Four different teams of conservators so far have surveyed the painting and what needs to be done.

And while Jones is extremely familiar with the Cyclorama, there is more to learn from the craftsmanship and care of its German painters, who were living their own version of the American Dream.

“The more you look at it, the more you see.”


  1. Thank you for the detailed history of the Cyclorama painting. I have never been, but wanted to take my children this coming year when we study American History in our homeschool. When will it be available for viewing and touring at the Atlanta History Center?

  2. Thanks for your question. The AHC said at some point visitors will be able to see the ongoing restoration work before the painting's reopening in 2017. I am not sure there are firm dates for that, but I plan to keep up with the progress and post updates.