A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part four)

Gordon Jones hardhat

Dr. Gordon Jones

(part four of four)

We’ve been touring this week the new Atlanta cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center—a state-of-the-art complex built specifically to showcase The Battle of Atlanta, a painting that depicts the July 22, 1864, Confederate breakthrough during the battle of Atlanta and the Federal counterattack to stem the tide. Our guide has been Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator for the museum.

At 42 feet high and 358 feet long, the Atlanta cyclorama is the largest in the country—although, arguably, not the most famous. That distinction would probably go to the Gettysburg cyclorama, which was installed in a custom-made home of its own in 2008.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: Is there a friendly rivalry with Gettysburg or do you guys work with them to learn from them? 

GORDON JONES: It’s basically that. They played a huge role in getting this done. Two things kind of came together. One: in Grant Park, attendance was declining. There was no money left for maintenance. It was a hand-to-mouth operation. So as attendance declined, there was nothing to maintain the painting, and it was starting to need some help. It had been thirty-five years since its last restoration. And at the same time, in the mid-2000s, Gettysburg was doing their cyclorama restoration. I was up there as part of the Museum Advisory Committee, and I got to see this going on.

So we started thinking about this here in Atlanta and, right around the time they finished theirs, our then-director started seriously thinking about it, and we went to our architect and we said, “Hey, man, can you do a little scratch drawing and see if we can fit this thing on our property somewhere?” And one thing led to another.

And then, the mayor, realizing the painting was headed in a downward spiral, called for an advisory committee and a task force to study what to do with it, partly at the urging of some of us. This was one of the recommended places. Here, or taking it downtown—it was whoever had the money. So we had a set of donors that came out of the woodwork that we had never met before and that we didn’t know. They read about it in the newspaper and said, “We’d like to make a legacy gift. We really want to save the Cyclorama. Here, have ten million dollars.” So with that, we were able to leverage the rest of the money and, at that point, it was just a matter of lining up the deal.

The Atlanta Zoo was able to take up the old building at Grant Park, and we were able to refurbish the painting so that it’s not left as derelict. The 1921 building is saved, the painting is saved, and we did it all with private money.

The city has leased this and [the locomotive] the Texas to us for seventy-five years, so in essence, it’s a win-win for everybody involved. We saved the building, we saved the painting, we saved the locomotive. It’s in a viable place now, it’s supported by an endowment, and it’s no longer hand-to-mouth. If nobody ever comes in to this painting as a paying customer ever again, it won’t matter because we have the money to maintain it anyway.

C.M.: So how much did the building cost?

G.J.: We’re not finished with that yet, but we’re going to say we have approximately a thirty-million dollar project, ten million of which is an endowment.

C.M.: What have I not asked about this project yet that I should know? I assume you get a lot of interest in people asking when is this going to be ready and that type of stuff.

G.J.: I think the main thing I’m trying to get across to people is just how many stories this thing can tell. It is the battle of Atlanta, but it’s more than that. It’s all about the memory of the Civil War, and the science of these things, and the artists of these things, and the Germans—the guys who came over here and made it big.

George Peter, the horse painter, stays over here and becomes sort of famous in his own right. He ends up doing all the background murals in the Natural History Museum in Milwaukee. And some of these other guys turn out to be Western artists, famous Wisconsin artists, at least. A lot of times they didn’t want to highlight the fact that they came over here to paint panoramas because that was like a low art form since it was popular.

But there are so many good stories, and I think the problem with this painting is that it has been associated too much with the battle of Atlanta and therefore with Confederacy, and in this town, it was a political football for a while and it doesn’t need to be.