Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Atlanta Cyclorama is getting a new home: Leaving Grant Park for Buckhead

(MSTSD and R.L. Brown & Associates)

The Atlanta Cyclorama, a cultural and historic city landmark, is moving from its longtime Grant Park home to the Atlanta History Center's campus in Buckhead, according to an announcement made Wednesday after years of study and discussion.

The 19th century painting-in-the-round of the Battle of Atlanta will still belong to the city, Mayor Kasim Reed said in a joint statement, but will be restored under the stewardship of the AHC. Plans must be approved by Atlanta City Council.

The Cyclorama was last overhauled 30 years ago. Some observers have said the mural, painted in 1885-86, is deteriorating and needs significant work.

"The move, which will take two years to complete, will relocate The Battle of Atlanta painting, the locomotive Texas and other Civil War artifacts to the Atlanta History Center where they will be restored and housed in a new state-of-the-art facility," a statement from the city and Atlanta History Center said. "The existing Cyclorama building will be developed into a premier community and event space as part of upgrades by Zoo Atlanta."

Zoo Atlanta is adjacent to the Cyclorama.

"There has been overwhelming positive reaction and it is a win-win situation," Gordon L. Jones, senior military historian and curator at the AHC, told the Picket this afternoon.

Construction will begin in summer 2015 on a custom-built annex at the Atlanta AHC to house the painting. The move will take two years to complete and restoration will begin at the painting's current location. The 23,000-square foot addition is planned for the northeast corner of the AHC campus, officials said, and will connect to the current museum.

(MSTSD and R.L. Brown & Associates)

The AHC location apparently won out over the option of moving the painting to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta.

The AHC has already committed to $32.2 million for the project. Jones said about $10 million will be spent on the new building and about $11 million for the restoration. The project will include a $10 million endowment.

"The History Center intends to restore the painting to its full size and overall height, and to re-create the 128-year-old painting’s original visual perspective – both of which have been lost for nearly 100 years," the statement says. It says the AHC will create a 3-D experience for visitors who will see the mural "as it was originally intended to be viewed in the 19th century."

A December 2011 Civil War Picket article reported on a task force set up by Reed to look into the painting's future. Attendance at the Cyclorama had flagged in recent years, though there had been a recent increase, and the city was concerned about funding and the condition of the mural and related exhibits.

Areas under consideration for a possible move were the Atlanta History Center campus, the former World of Coca-Cola site in Underground Atlanta and a stretch of popular venues at or near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the AHC moved to the front when an Atlanta couple, Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, offered $10 million in support of a relocation to Buckhead.

Grant Park has housed the massive work of art since 1921. It covers 15,030 square feet and is 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference

Figures in the foreground of the Atlanta Cyclorama.
Anticipated attendance for the Cyclorama was not a part of the financial calculus, said Jones. The prime factor was ensuring the 360-degree painting's long-term care, he said.
"It is an artifact. It is not an attraction," he said. "In the 1880s it was the IMAX theater."

Still, Jones expects visitors will learn much about earlier forms of entertainment and how the Civil War was interpreted well more than a century ago.

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

Long before motion pictures, "The History Channel" and 3D – cycloramas were the storytelling spectacles of the time. The huge murals presented sweeping historical scenes and singular moments of intense personal bravery or sacrifice.

European artists in the late 19th century created the building-sized round paintings. The artists often traveled to the locales to ensure historical accuracy.

Most of the paintings are gone – lost to time, the elements and the evolution of mass entertainment.

Only two remain in the United States. They feature scenes from the battles of Gettysburg and Atlanta in the Civil War. 

Wednesday's announcement coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Atlanta Campaign. Most of the reaction on the AHC's Facebook page was positive. "Wow this is great news, I can think of no better place for it. We went a year or so ago and noticed it needs work," said one commenter.

Critics of the move hoped that the city would upgrade the current site.

Jones acknowledged many will be sad to see the painting leave Grant Park. But the neighborhood and city will benefit from the boost the building will give to Zoo Atlanta, he said.

"It has been there a very long time," Jones said of the mural. "I am going to hate to see it go on that level. Nostalgia is not going to save this painting. This is one of the world's greatest artifacts."

Paul Simo, historic committee chairman with the Grant Park Neighborhood Association, said Wednesday was a "bittersweet day."

“No, we are not surprised," he told the Picket. "We are extremely sad to see the Cyclorama painting move from Grant Park."

But residents believe the Atlanta History Center is the proper steward for the painting. “We know the AHC will take good care of the resource. They are the right entity to care for it and give it the right exhibit that it deserves."

Simo said the association has a good relationship with the zoo and looks forward to the new use of the building, including an overlook area over the African savanna exhibit. "Any traffic in the neighborhood is good for our local businesses."

• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coverage
• Details from the Atlanta History Center 

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