Imagine trying to move a hand-painted work of art nearly as old as Edison’s light bulb across the City of Atlanta on a weekday. Now imagine that the piece is considerably longer than a football field (371 feet), several stories tall, and weighs 10,000 pounds. Imagine that the painting’s new home, neighboring the high-rise commercial epicenter of the Buckhead subdistrict, had to be built to withstand the better part of the next century, at least. And now you can understand why one architect on the project went insane.
Okay, maybe not technically insane. But the MSTSD architecture firm designer—part of an army of outside specialists required to pull off the Atlanta History Center’s new Cyclorama: The Big Picture exhibit, ranging from engineers, riggers, and truckers to Swiss and German “experts” who’d moved or restored cycloramas before—was at least borderline hallucinatory. As Jackson McQuigg, the center’s vice president of properties, recalls, the architect had helped devise and scrap 66 different designs for an appropriate cyclorama habitat. One morning, he called McQuigg and said, basically: You know, I just threw my belt on my bed while getting dressed, and I looked at how it curved, and maybe we could make the facility just a random shape!
McQuigg’s response: “Man, you need a break.”
Between architectural design and engineering, upwards of 18,000 man-hours went into rehousing and transporting the Civil War depiction about 10 miles from the fringes of Zoo Atlanta in Grant Park to the recently renovated history center—a process that took four years. As Atlanta’s biggest painting, it’s considered one of the largest historical artifacts in America, joining only one other cyclorama in the country, The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Around the world, just 19 historical cycloramas survive.
“Everything that anybody could imagine, we drew it, just to see,” said MSTSD architect Grant Moseley of the 23,000-square-foot, cylindrical facility, created in collaboration with the architecture firm R.L. Brown & Associates. “Ramps, moving sidewalks, escalators, rising platforms like carnival rides—on and on. We finally got there.”
A month after opening, thousands of visitors have seen Atlanta’s 360-degree cyclorama in a way it hasn’t been experienced in nearly a century. No revolving platforms, no gimmicks. Just immense scale, remarkable artistry and craftsmanship, and classic elements that echo its inspiration, cycloramas of the 1700s. (Only with sophisticated lighting that mimics the fateful, bloody day in Atlanta—July 22, 1864—and chest-thumping, IMAX-quality sound during introductory videos that play across the canvas). Locals would probably recognize the cyclorama’s precise vantage point today: Rogers Jordan Garage, a longstanding Inman Park auto repair business. Set beneath a gorgeous violet horizon, modern-day landmarks stand out, including Kennesaw Mountain at one horizon, Stone Mountain at the other, and what’s become Moreland and DeKalb avenues, depicted as muddy, snaking trails near the precursor to today’s MARTA tracks toward Decatur. Prior to its torching, Atlanta is depicted as a cluster of spires on one horizon. Meanwhile, Union General William T. Sherman is painted atop a horse on a hill, near today’s Carter Center, overseeing the carnage.
As was the case when The Battle of Atlanta was originally painted by 17 German artists for its 1886 debut in Minneapolis, the cyclorama illustrates a crucial Union victory. It’s not, contrary to what some might think, a paean to Confederate valor. Changes made for Southern audiences when the painting permanently arrived in Atlanta in 1892—repainting Confederate captives so they appeared to be Union, or painting an American flag disrespected in the mud—could be the root of such thinking. But the canvas was repainted more than 80 years ago to its original appearance. And thanks to a painstaking process of restitching by hand, filling in gaps destroyed by neglect, and cleaning every square inch with acetone (via cotton balls attached to chopsticks), the full panorama shines anew.
“Every decision that was made, the goal was to take it back to the original experience,” said AHC spokesman Howard Pousner during a recent tour. “To make the painting whole again.
With the former, century-old facility failing in Grant Park, the center entered into a 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta for the cyclorama’s relocation, restoration, and longterm preservation. The center raised nearly $36 million for the project, including $10 million as a legacy gift from Atlantans Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, which should cover upkeep and staffing for decades.
“The future of the painting is incredibly bright,” said Pousner. “The painting’s never been this stable. It’s been completely restored, top to bottom. It’s in a brand-new facility.”
That facility, named for the Whitakers, is partially submerged to obey zoning guidelines, creating a gradual stair-step between the tony residential areas next door to Buckhead’s sky-rises and construction cranes up the street. (Fun fact: Soil excavation at the site required 3,300 truckloads, and finding a contractor to haul it away—as with companies to forge steel—was difficult, because construction occurred during the creation of two massive Atlanta projects, SunTrust Park and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.)
Encased in limestone from the Franconian mountain range in the Bavarian region of Germany, the facility has already scored accolades, including the 2nd Annual Community Design Award at the Atlanta Urban Design Commission Design Awards last year.
“There was so much wrong with that [Grant Park] building, including the fact that it was dimensionally too small to properly hang the painting,” said McQuigg. “Everyone knew that ideally the cyclorama would have a better home at some point. The question was, ‘Where?’”
For at least the next 75 years, the answer is: “Here.”