Experts at the Atlanta History Center painstakingly restore a national treasure

Experts tackle the painstaking work of restoring the 132-year-old cyclorama.

STORY: H.M. Cauley
Photos courtesy Jason Hales/Atlanta History Center

Sandy Springs resident Gordon Jones has been the military curator at the Atlanta History Center since 1991, a background that prepared him well to tackle his most challenging assignment: restoring a work of art so big it required the construction of its own 23,000-squarefoot building and a $35.2 million budget to ensure its future.

Officially titled The Battle of Atlanta, the art is familiarly known as The Cyclorama, a 371-foot-long, 49-foot-high painting created in 1886 to depict the Civil War Battle of Atlanta. It became a permanent resident of Grant Park in 1922, when about 7 feet around the top was cut away to fit it into a building near Zoo Atlanta. But since taking up residence at the History Center, the painting has been under the care of Jones and a small army of restorers working from original photos to bring the work back to its original design. They’ve cleaned and repainted parts that were heavily water damaged and spruced up the diorama at the base where 128 plastic figures were added in the 1930s.

“The painting suffered its greatest damage before it ever got to Grant Park,” says Jones. “For example, the sky was repainted then patched up. We had photos for everything else, but for the sky, we had to work from other sources.”

Atlanta’s cyclorama, one of six created by the American Panorama Company in Wisconsin, was among three dozen that toured the country. “It was the IMAX theater before IMAX,” says Jones. “It was the biggest, baddest, closest-to-reality illusion anyone in the 1880s had ever seen. Being surrounded by color images gave the illusion of having been there.”

Today, the cyclorama is an extremely rare entertainment artifact. Atlanta’s is one of 17 full-scale paintings that remain, including a depiction of the crucifixion in Quebec, Canada, and another Civil War scene in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Atlanta’s is the only surviving cyclorama that was painted entirely in the U.S. Jones notes though that “the painting in 1922 was not at all the vision of the artists. Our whole point is to bring it back to what the artists intended.”

The new entrance to the painting puts visitors inside the massive work.

Restorers are also re-creating the way the public first viewed the cyclorama back in the 1880s. “It won’t be on a revolving platform,” says Jones. “Instead, there’s a cutout section you walk through to get inside. This is known as the tunnel entrance. An escalator goes up to the viewing platform, and underneath, you’ll be able to experience how it all works. You can stand next to the edge of the diorama and see the artifacts and drawings that went into the making of it, as if you were in the artist’s studio.”

Though it took more than 300 workers to delicately move the cyclorama to its Buckhead home in 2017, the biggest challenge for Jones now is restoring the sky. “The sheer size of it is daunting,” he says. “It’s about three-fifths of the surface. We put a protective coating over it, then applied paint, so if anyone wants to go back and see what the 1922 sky looked like, they could. But it’s tough bringing back the illusion that the sky meets the horizon, which you need to give a sense of distance. And there are trees in front of it, so we’ve been painting blue around and through them. It’s not a fast process.”

Plans now call to unveil the restoration on Feb. 22, as part of the grand opening of the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. But that won’t mean the project is finished, says Jones. “It will need another round of work in years to come. It’s never going to be done.”

ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER
130 West Paces Ferry Road N.W.
Atlanta 30305
404.814.4000
atlantahistorycenter.com