A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part one)

Atlanta History Center

The Atlanta History Center

(part one of four)

While I had many great Civil War-related adventures in 2017, the highlight probably came in June when Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center, treated me to a behind-the-scenes tour of their new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. The new facility, scheduled to open in the fall of 2018, will house the fully restored Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting—the largest in America, measuring 42 feet high and 358 feet long. The building, at 23,000 square feet, was specifically built to house the painting, which formerly hung in Grant Park, where it had been on display since 1921. 


The Battle of Atlanta depicts the Confederate breakthrough on July 22, 1864, and the Federal counterattack that stemmed the tide. It was one of two identical copies painted in 1886 by the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee. A team of more than twenty painters—Germans and Austrians hired to come to the U.S—worked on the project.

Gordon and I and my son Jackson donned hardhats before we walked into the main gallery, which felt like the interior of a missile silo: vast, cylindrical, concrete. We came into the space behind the painting and circled around toward a gap in the canvas, with the smooth cement wall on our left and the back of the painting on our right.

“The biggest problem we had with this thing was the old building, which was too small for the painting,” Gordon explained as we walked, “so it was absolutely impossible to walk behind the painting. It was also impossible to get scaffolding behind the painting.” We passed a tall scaffold cozied up the back of the canvas, giving restoration engineers access to a high-up part of the painting, although from the back, I couldn’t tell what it was.


Gordon pointed out a system of weights and aluminum poles along the bottom of the painting that helped keep the canvas stretched. “It was also, most importantly, impossible to have the painting come out to its full circumference at the bottom,” Gordon said of the cramped space at Grant Park. The canvas has a shorter circumference along its center than it does on the top and bottom, meaning that it bows in the middle. The resulting parabolic shape helps create a 3-D effect for people standing in the middle.

“It’s already starting to get its shape back,” Gordon said, “which is the hyperbolic shape whereby the top edge and the bottom edge are further away from the platform than the middle, so it essentially bows out so that the area of the painting just above the horizon is actually closer to the eye, if you’re looking from the observation platform. So, literally there was no space for that to happen in the old building. Now, we built the building big enough.

Atlanta Scaffolding

“So not only can you see the scaffold back here and work on the painting from now until eternity,” he continued, “but now you can also you can also bring a school group back here and show them what’s going on, and that ties into all their STEM requirements [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math]. There’s engineering and math in how they do this and how they rig it. There’s a cool story, just walking back here. And I think also when people come into this visitor experience, we’ll include being able to see the back of the painting.”

“Oh that’s neat,” I remarked, “because they don’t do that at Gettysburg.”

“The other thing we’re going to skip that they did at Gettysburg was the timed tour,” Gordon added. “So this will be one of those where there will be some kind of sound and light presentation, but you will not have to exit once it’s over. You can spend as much time in here as you want.”

And with that, he led us through the gap in the canvas into the interior of the main exhibition space. The “reveal” stopped me in my tracks.

“Holy cow. This is just amazing.”

I had my recorder going for the tour, so for the next segment of our series, I’ll just let it roll and let Gordon do the talking. Jackson, meanwhile, grabbed photos as we talked, so I’ll share more of those, too.

Join us tomorrow as we take a closer look at the Atlanta cyclorama!