You may think you’ve seen the cyclorama depicting the Battle of Atlanta before – in fact, many of us thought that – but the restored painting that just opened in its brand new home at Atlanta History Center bears little resemblance to the painting we saw in its longtime home in Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood.
Yes, it’s the same painting. But what used to be a relic has been transformed into one of the most spectacular attractions in Atlanta. No written description can do it justice, but, alas, I will try.
To view it, you take a short escalator ride up 15 feet to a circular platform where you walk the perimeter of the platform at your own pace – lingering as long as you like in front of each scene.
You are instantly captivated. The painting really comes to life when viewed from on high, and it has been painstakingly restored. Among other things, the restoration team corrected the hyperbolic shape of the painting through re-tensioning. As a result, it now conveys a 3D effect as was the original intent. That effect does much to make you feel a connection to the battle unfolding before your eyes.
Dusty and musty no more, the Atlanta Cyclorama grips your imagination as you behold the afternoon of July 22, 1864, and the Battle of Atlanta, a crucial turning point in our nation’s Civil War when Union forces prevailed. Atlanta would fall on Sept. 2 that same year.
One of the world’s largest oil paintings, the 360-degree cyclorama stands 49 feet tall and stretches longer than a football field. It weighs 10,000 pounds, which makes the through-the-rooftop removal of the painting from its Grant Park home all the more amazing. The restoration process included recreating three missing sections, which added 2,908 square feet to the painting and returned it to its original size of 14,952 square feet.
If you saw the “old” cyclorama, you may remember the diorama landscape of three-dimensional figures in front of and at the bottom of the painting. Those figures -- all 128 of them – also were restored, and the effect of the diorama today is such that it’s a little bit difficult to determine where the diorama ends and the painting begins.
The Battle of Atlanta is one of only 17 surviving cycloramas worldwide. The massive paintings were the motion pictures of their day -- the late 19th century. Of the 11 still on exhibit, only three reside in North America -- one in Quebec, one in Pennsylvania and, of course, this one in Atlanta.
In addition to the just-opened “Cyclorama: The Big Picture,” the Atlanta History Center is home to "Turning Point: The American Civil War," one of the largest Civil War exhibits in the United States. And, now, with the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama building, there is even more history to absorb.
Sharing the new building with the cyclorama is the restored 1856 “Texas” locomotive known for its role in an incident during the Civil War when the Texas gave chase to another locomotive, the "General," which had been seized by Union loyalists. Among the books and movies about the chase is a 1956 Disney movie.
The Texas is at home inside a new 2,000-square-foot gallery connected to the new cyclorama building. Bring the kids because visitors are allowed to climb aboard the Texas and see how coal was shoveled to power the massive machine.
Leave plenty of time when you plan your visit because there is much to see. In a reception area and an anteroom just outside the entrance to the cyclorama, there are posters, books, artifacts, interactive screens and a time-lapsed video of the move of the cyclorama from Grant Park to Atlanta History Center. See the infantry drum of Thomas Baker, 55th Massachusetts Infantry. An 18-year-old farm laborer from Ohio, Baker was the first African-American to join the U.S. Army after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Imagine the life of nurse Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke. During the war, she cared for the wounded on 19 battlefields and helped establish approximately 300 hospitals. She was stationed at the 15th Corps field hospital at Vinings Station during the Battle of Atlanta. Bickerdyke was the only woman allowed to travel with Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army. At his request, she rode at the head of the 15th Corps in the U.S. Army’s Victory Parade in Washington, D.C., in May 1865.
The Atlanta History Center is located in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, known for top-notch restaurants and for shopping areas including Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls, Shops Around Lenox outdoor shopping center and Shops Buckhead Atlanta, where designer labels rule. If it's lunch you want, check this list. For more things to do in Buckhead, click here.
Journalist Carol Carter was editor of a 150-year business history of Atlanta jointly published by Atlanta History Center and Atlanta Business Chronicle.