Originally standing at 50 feet tall with a circumference of 358 feet, the Atlanta Cyclorama is one of the largest and oldest cycloramas in existence.
The oil painting was originally going to be the campaign poster for John A. Logan. Logan was a Union commander at the Battle of Atlanta who, like many others after the war, sought a career in politics. Logan commissioned the painting The Battle of Atlanta during his run as a vice presidential candidate, paying somewhere around $42,000 in 1883. The American Panorama Company, based out of Milwaukee, was chosen to create the painting, with a team led by Germany’s Friedrich Wilhelm Heine and August Lohr. Logan had planned for them to create two painting for his campaign, The Battle of Missionary Ridge and The Battle of Atlanta. Unfortunately, John Logan, died before ever seeing the painting completed. Nevertheless, upon completion it was put on display in 1887 in Detroit, MI.
For many years the painting was bounced back and forth between various owners until it eventually found its home with a traveling circus. When the circus arrived in Atlanta, rather than flourish, it went bankrupt, mostly due to the fact the Atlanteans had no desire to go and see a painting that they thought glorified the Union victory over their city.
With the circus’s bankruptcy, the painting fell into disrepair, and wasn’t until 1893 when George Valentine Gress purchased the painting that the city began to take notice of it. By that point, however, nearly eight feet had to be removed from the painting. They are unsure of where exactly the eight feet came off of, it would have been from the top or the bottom, perhaps both, nevertheless the painting now stands at 42 feet rather than 50.
Upon purchasing the painting, Gress asked the city to build a structure to house the enormous painting. The city reluctantly agreed, and five years later, in 1898, the painting went on display for the public. The city charged 10 cents to view the painting. During the first week it was in operation, there was also a reunion of Confederate veterans taking place, and even though veterans were allowed free admission, the cyclorama still managed to bring in $1,000 worth of revenue. Located in Grant Park, the cyclorama shares a neighborhood with the Atlanta Zoo and Oakland Cemetery. The cyclorama and zoo have an interwoven history. When the traveling circus went bankrupt the animals had to go somewhere, resulting in the establishment of the Atlanta Zoo. Later Gress would also purchase and donate more animals to the zoo.
The cyclorama remained open until 1979 when it was shut down for two years so restoration work could be done. In 1981, it was reopened to the public and is still inviting many visitors each day to witness the Battle of Atlanta.
I recently visited the cyclorama when my family was visiting from out of town. While there, I asked the tour guide what he thought the most important thing about the exhibit was. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to experience history that took place right in our backyard,” the guide said. “There is nothing else like it, and it’s amazing.”