Monday, June 15, 2015

Readying for restoration, move: Atlanta Cyclorama soon to close at Grant Park

(Picket and Library of Congress photos)

I was a couple minutes behind and hurried to join the rest of the audience. The large room was nearly pitch-black and my hands felt like paws as they tried to find an empty seat during the crawl up the carpeted steps. I could just make out a couple silhouetted heads and finally clutched a seat near the top of the platform. Whew! Just in time for the performance.

The lights came on. The Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta began.

The crowd of 35 at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum gazed at the massive painting and took in the light-and-sound presentation as the revolving platform took us around the massive mural twice. We passed the Troup-Hurt House, where the Confederates briefly broke through the Federal line on July 22, 1864. Passed Union Maj. Gen. John A. “Blackjack” Logan and his staff riding furiously toward the front. Passed fake cannon and plaster figures in the diorama, including one bearing a likeness of “Gone With the Wind” star Clark Gable, who said during a visit to the Atlanta Cyclorama that the only thing that could improve it was to add him. They did so -- but he ended up as the face of a dead soldier.

Near the end of the dated production, the recorded narration said of the Confederate loss at Atlanta: “So many dreams died that day. So perished this cause.”

The lights back on, we made our way to the edge of the giant platform, taking in details of the slightly rippled, magnificent work of art.

Rendering of painting's future home (Atlanta History Center)

I lingered a few minutes with others to speak with our guide and I walked out to take in the museum’s other exhibits, including the famed locomotive Texas.

It was a bittersweet moment last Friday. After all, it was the last time I would sit on the platform at Atlanta’s Grant Park, where the mural, painted by German artists in 1885-1886, has been housed in the same building since 1921. I first visited in 1974 and have made a few more stops since then.

The Atlanta Cyclorama’s last day in its current location is Tuesday, June 30. It will close with little fanfare.

After then, the cultural and historic landmark prepares for the next phase of its storied life. The painting is being relocated to the Atlanta History Center in the city’s Buckhead neighborhood, where an extensive restoration will be completed.

What’s to become of the old property?

New entry area for Zoo Atlanta; Cyclorama building in background
This zoo building near Cyclorama will be removed (Zoo Atlanta)

Zoo Atlanta, right next door in Grant Park, will raze its old administrative office near the entrance and place those and other functions in the old Cyclorama building. The change also will allow for an expansion of the African savanna exhibit and the addition of elephants (two currently are at the zoo).

“We are appreciative of the mayor (Kasim Reed) bestowing us taking over a treasured building that has a legacy in Atlanta,” Keisha Hines, the zoo’s senior director of communications, told the Picket.

While there is no firm opening date for the new Cyclorama building, AHC officials told the Picket last week they expect it to be sometime in early to mid-2017.

AHC officials are excited that the move will bring new interpretation opportunities for the Cyclorama, which covers 15,030 square feet and is 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference. The $32.2 million project, funded largely through donations and philanthropies, will include an endowment for long-term maintenance and ensure more people will see the painting, which officials refer to as an artifact.

Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center, said once the restoration is done, people will see the Cyclorama as its artists envisioned – from an open platform with a 3-D effect. And the view won’t be hemmed in as it currently is at Grant Park (you only see a third or so of the painting at any given time because of the large rotating platform). Another bonus is the return of sections that were trimmed so that the mural could fit inside the current building.

Jones understands why some are nostalgic about the painting-in-the round's long tenure at Grant Park. (The painting has been in Grant Park since the 1890s; it once was in a wooden building).

“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of another. It makes you sad. It was an Atlanta icon for so long,” Jones told the Picket. “So many have taken care of it -- (Artist-historian) Wilbur Kurtz and the staff. It has been a labor of love for a lot of people.”

A 1979-1982 renovation of the building and conservation led by Gustav Berger ensured the painting’s survival. But the city’s funding limited what could be done in new forms of interpretation and long-term care of the painting, and it was never able to pay for a proper means of attachment to the walls (it hangs now like a shower curtain).

“This is the right thing to do,” Jones says of the impending move. “We are a long-term care facility.”

(Picket photo)

Squabble over famous locomotive Texas

The addition of the Cyclorama will add to the AHC’s permanent exhibits and collections relating to the Civil War.

Asked what items from the Grant Park location he is most excited about coming to the AHC, Jones mentioned four artillery pieces that stood vigil at Fort Walker in what is now Grant Park and a Robert Schade figure study (below) used as guide for the mural’s artists.

Another star of the show will be the locomotive Texas.

On April 12, 1862, the Texas took part in the famous Great Locomotive Chase, or Andrews Raid. Steaming in reverse, the locomotive pursued the fleeing General that had been commandeered by Union soldiers and civilians in disguise.

The Texas was back in the headlines a couple months ago when word came that politicians and officials in Cobb County and Kennesaw, northwest of Atlanta, indicated they would try to have the locomotive moved to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, which houses the General.

A state representative told the Marietta Daily Journal in April that he believes the Texas may be state property, rather than the city of Atlanta’s. “It just makes all kinds of sense in the world to be housed somewhere in Cobb. This is where the historical event actually took place, and I know that it would be well cared for by that museum for sure,” Rep. Earl Ehrhart said. He told the newspaper he may introduce legislation to make it happen if state officials don’t reach a decision.

Frieze on the Cyclorama exterior

While the chase did not take place in Atlanta, the Atlanta History Center says extensive research has uncovered a document that goes in its favor.

“We are certain it belongs to the city,” Jones said, describing a timeline in which a railroad line disposed of rolling stock and a ladies’ association bestowed the Texas to Atlanta after the state declined it.

Hillary Hardwick, vice president of marketing communications at the AHC,” said “there is nothing to discuss.” Plans are being made to have the Texas tell a wider story of the founding and growth of Atlanta transportation and there is value in having the trains in different locations to tell two stories, she said.

Officials will have to bust out a wall at the Grant Park building in order to move the locomotive by crane to a flat-bed truck for the journey north to Buckhead.

A panoramic journey way back in time

Mike Saulsberry
Sitting on the 184-seat viewing platform at Grant Park, southeast of downtown Atlanta, was like a trip back in time – to a sweltering day in July 1864. The mural, all 9,334 pounds of it, is epic in scale and focus. The focal point of the painting depicts fighting about a mile and a half from Grant Park.

Among those I joined Friday on the stage was Mike Saulsberry of Michigan.

He and his brother, who lives in the Atlanta area, had visited the site in the late 1990s and he was interested in seeing it again after delving deeper into history and genealogy in recent years.

The brothers have ancestors, James and Edward Gish, who served in the U.S. Colored Troops’ Company D, 108th Regiment, and Henson Salsbury with Company F, 122nd Regiment.

“I liked the fact that the presenter took time to answer questions,” Saulsberry said of Friday’s presentation. “He gave us an opportunity to get up and walk around.” At Gettysburg’s cyclorama, he said, the presentation was too quick. “You didn’t have a chance to linger.”

Saulsberry said he wants to learn more about African-American soldiers and their role in the Atlanta Campaign.

While programs in recent years at the current location have stressed diversity and the impact of the war on various populations, the standing exhibits at Grant Park are dated and lack such context. Two years ago, venue spokesman Yakingma Robinson told the Picket that the staff had hoped for new, interactive exhibits. That now will have to wait until the new building at the Atlanta History Center.

In 2011, Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote about his visit to the center: “The Cyclorama looks tired -- from the seating, to the diorama, to the painting itself."

With concerns about attendance, funding and the condition of the painting and exhibits, Mayor Reed in 2011 assembled a task force to study solutions. Last summer, Reed and the Atlanta History Center announced the Cyclorama would get a new home.

Robinson and Jones told the Picket that the painting, itself, is in decent shape. But art experts won’t know for sure until the diorama is removed so that they can get a closer look.

Zoo Atlanta's current elephants: Kelly and Tara.

Zoo Atlanta excited about the addition

Although some residents of Grant Park spoke in favor of keeping the Cyclorama, there never appeared to be much formal interaction between the venue and the surrounding neighborhood.

Zoo Atlanta has much deeper ties to residents and associations.

And it’s much more of a destination. While it saw a small attendance bump during the Civil War sesquicentennial, the Cyclorama’s current numbers are between 60,000 and 70,000 annually. Zoo Atlanta anticipates 1 million visitors this year, said Hines, the spokeswoman.

Beyond the expanded savanna exhibit, current plans call for the zoo to use the building for offices and a large special events facility that can be rented. A current Zoo Atlanta administrative building will be torn down to a build “a more rich entry area for the guests.” Hines cautioned plans are subject to change.

Already, the zoo sees weddings, parties and even sleepovers for children.

Conceptual image of expanded exhibit (Zoo Atlanta)

Zoo officials can’t do much inside of their new site until the Atlanta History Center has done some of the necessary restoration work and move the mural.

Hines said it’s not yet clear what decorative or other themes might be put in place in the old Cyclorama building.

“It will be exciting once we do know,” she said of the project. “It will be great for Zoo Atlanta, residents and partners in the neighborhood.”

COMING SOON: A closer look at the Atlanta History Center’s plans for Cyclorama and related exhibits

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