A Union victory in the Civil War became a Confederate triumph in the Cyclorama.
A Union victory in the Civil War became a Confederate triumph in the Cyclorama.

Atlanta Cyclorama

Field review by the editors.

Atlanta, Georgia

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama is over 130 years old -- one of America's oldest man-made attractions -- and for nearly all of those years it's been upsetting somebody.

Visitors walk through a tunnel and ascend an escalator into the middle of the action.
Visitors walk through a tunnel and ascend an escalator into the middle of the action.

During their 1880s heyday, at least 40 Cycloramas roamed the U.S. They were immense circular paintings of famous battles, Biblical scenes, and disasters such as the Johnstown Flood, outfitted with miniature props to increase their illusion of depth. The huge artworks were made to an identical size to fit identical round buildings so that they could go on city-to-city tours. From the start, they were conceived as money-making attractions.

Surprisingly, The Battle of Atlanta, completed in 1886, was never meant to be seen in Atlanta. It was made for the North, which after the Civil War had the biggest cities, the most people, and the most money. The battle itself -- July 22, 1864 -- was a crushing defeat for the South, helping to doom the Confederacy and make possible the reelection of Lincoln. The Cyclorama celebrated it.

Rebels behind cotton bales pick off another Yankee.
Rebels behind cotton bales pick off another Yankee.

But patriotism and optical gimmicks couldn't save the Cycloramas. They were flammable, easily damaged, and expensive to move and store (Each canvas weighed nearly five tons). "You could write a whole book on Cyclorama catastrophes," said Gordon Jones, curator and Cyclorama expert at the Atlanta History Center. And once the novelty wore off, The Battle of Atlanta went bankrupt.

That should have been the end of it, as it was with nearly all of the other Cycloramas. But The Battle of Atlanta was not forgotten. It was purchased by a Georgia showman, Paul Atkinson, who reworked key scenes to give it a pro-South spin, moved The Battle to its namesake city, and advertised it as the "Only Confederate victory ever painted." That was a bit too much even for the South, but Atlanta nonetheless grew to love Cyclorama 2.0. Old Confederate veterans and war widows would give tours, speaking of Southern valor; and of how the Rebels could've won the Battle with just a few more men; and of how Atlanta, Empire City of the New South, rose from the ashes left by the brutal Yankees. "The cost of the Cyclorama's survival," said Gordon, "was that it was saddled with all this baggage."

Clark Gable joked that he wasn't in the Cyclorama, so a corpse was given his face.
Clark Gable joked that he wasn't in the Cyclorama, so his face was painted on a corpse.

What did African-Americans think about this topsy-turvy version of history? It didn't matter, because they weren't allowed to see it. The Cyclorama was in a whites-only Atlanta park, which remained segregated until the 1960s.

The Cyclorama endured a number of makeovers, most of them ill-conceived. A new Cyclorama building turned out to be too small, so a large section of the painting was simply cut out and thrown away. Clark Gable, star of Gone With the Wind, complained that the only thing wrong with the Cyclorama was that he wasn't in it, so he was added as a dead Yankee. Melodramatic lighting schemes were introduced. During the Reagan years, visitors viewed the Cyclorama from a rotating turntable on the floor, in what museum spokesman Howard Pousner called "1980s razzmatazz."

The Cyclorama had changed, but Atlanta had changed even more, and by the 21st century the city was no longer entranced by its 19th century image. Cyclorama attendance dwindled, and the attraction closed in 2015.

Cyclorama travel mementoes go back over 100 years.
Cyclorama travel mementoes go back over 100 years.

But like Lucy the Elephant and the Neon Diving Lady, the Atlanta Cyclorama had survived long enough to be seen as historical, and worth preserving. "We decided, 'Let's declaw this thing,'" said Gordon. The Cyclorama, formerly an attraction about The Battle of Atlanta, would instead become an attraction about the Cyclorama.

After nearly four years and millions of dollars worth of work, the Cyclorama reopened in a brand-new (and correct size) building at the Atlanta History Center, on February 22, 2019, exactly 127 years to the day after its original Atlanta debut. Visitors are now invited to study Cyclorama exhibits, review what Howard called its "twisty history," then walk through a tunnel, ride up an escalator, and emerge onto a platform in the center of the circular painting -- an elevated perspective that duplicates the way the Cyclorama was meant to be viewed over 100 years ago. Missing sections have been restored, and after-the-fact embellishments eliminated (except for Clark Gable). A 12-minute introductory video, projected onto the painting, features exasperated artists, skeptical African-Americans, and wistful neo-Confederates voicing their conflicting opinions of the Cyclorama.

"We have to remind people that it wasn't painted to glorify the South," said Howard.

The Battle of Atlanta is one of just two American Cyclorama survivors (the other is in Gettysburg) and, as Gordon pointed out, "The fact that it still exist is in many ways nothing short of miraculous." From his perspective the Cyclorama is a priceless 25,000-square-foot artifact, not a mere tourist attraction -- but it still has the power to draw a crowd, and visitors are always delighted to see Clark Gable, even as a corpse.

Atlanta Cyclorama

Atlanta History Center

Address:
130 W. Paces Ferry Rd NW, Atlanta, GA
Directions:
Atlanta History Center. North side of the city. I-75 exit 254. Drive east on Moores Mill Rd for 1.5 miles. Bear right onto W. Paces Ferry Rd NW. Drive one mile. Entrance on the right. Free parking.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-5:30, Su 12-5:30 (Call to verify)
Phone:
404-814-4000
Admission:
Adults $21.50
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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