This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
By Suzanne Wray
In the nineteenth century, the painted panorama allowed viewers to immerse themselves in another world, be it a city or a battlefield. The purpose-built building in which the realistic circular painting was housed was part of the apparatus needed to create the desired illusion: viewers saw the painting from a circular platform, and a three-dimensional foreground helped disguise the point at which the painting ended and the foreground began. By the late 1800s, the size of paintings and buildings had been standardized, enabling panoramas to be exchanged between cities.
In the United States, the panorama was often called a “cyclorama” and paintings of Civil War battles became the most popular subjects. Large cities often held more than one panorama rotunda and competed for an audience, while studios in Mott Haven, New York, Milwaukee, and Englewood, Illinois turned out the large canvases.
As the popularity of the panorama waned, buildings were demolished or renovated to serve other purposes, and cyclorama paintings often disappeared into storage, or were destroyed. Or they were shown in other settings: hung around the walls of a skating rink or even a department store, the illusion of “being there” was lost. Worlds’ Fairs and similar exhibitions often had a cyclorama on display, thus keeping them on display long after they had disappeared from most cities.
Changing ideas about how a battle or battlefield should be presented to the public also changed ideas about the buildings in which the cycloramas were housed, and how they were shown. Both the Gettysburg Cyclorama and the Atlanta Cyclorama were improperly hung and the paintings deteriorated; misguided preservation attempts often did more damage.
Both the Gettysburg and Atlanta Cycloramas have survived: the Gettysburg painting was recently restored and is housed in a new building on the battlefield; the Atlanta Cyclorama is being moved to a new building and will be restored. Tourists today, living in an age where virtual reality is often spoken about, now can experience one of its’ precursors, the cyclorama.
Suzanne Wray is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and lives and works in New York CIty. She is a member of the International Panorama Council, and has presented her research at the organization’s conferences. Her research has also been presented at the conventions of the Magic Lantern Society of the USA and Canada, and published in their Gazette. She is on the board of directors of the Society for Industrial Archeology, and is a member of the Society for Commercial Archeology.