Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
As we climb the deep crimson stairs into the darkened auditorium of the Atlanta Cyclorama, a line from Mad Men comes to mind: This isn’t a painting, it’s a time machine.
There’s a scent of wet dust in the air, which has grown chillier here in the echoing chamber, along with a sense of anticipation. The scattered crowd goes silent even before our guide begins speaking in the darkness. It’s hard to gauge how high the ceiling is with the lights off, and not much easier when they finally come on to reveal the main attraction, The Battle of Atlanta—one of the largest oil paintings in the world. The panorama transports visitors to the bloody afternoon of July 22, 1864, a turning point in the Civil War. Our stadium-style seats begin rotating clockwise to reveal the full 365-foot circumference of the painting, which stands 42 feet tall. Adding to the enormity and overall strangeness of the exhibition is the three-dimensional diorama, with plaster soldiers duking it out among dusty fake flora on banks of red clay (actually fiberglass).
Of course, this is old hat to anyone who grew up locally. Field trips to the Cyclorama and adjoining Zoo Atlanta have been an elementary school rite of passage for generations of Georgians. But after almost a century in Grant Park, the so-called “longest running show in the United States” comes to a close at the end of this month.
The news broke last July—nearly 150 years to the day of the events depicted in the painting—that the city-owned attraction will be relocated to the Atlanta History Center, along with the steam locomotive, Texas, currently on display in Grant Park. Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans to incorporate over 3,000 square feet of The Battle of Atlanta that had been removed in the 1920s, as well as restore eight feet of sky to the height of the painting. The transfer calls for a custom-built 23,000-square-foot Cyclorama wing at the Buckhead museum to house the painting.
Yakingma Robinson, public relations manager for the Atlanta Cyclorama, says foot traffic has increased since word got out about the move, with many locals returning for the first time since childhood.
“A lot of guests now are trying to get into the Cyclorama before it closes,” he says. “From what I’m hearing, most of the customers are telling me they haven’t been here in 20 or 30 years, but now they want to get in for one last look.”
At the same time, Robinson suspects that the numbers could have been even higher. “I think we’re losing customers as well, because there’s a misconception that we’re already closed.”
A recent visit proves his later point. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the tiered parking lot just off Confederate Avenue is filled beyond capacity. The plaza outside Zoo Atlanta swarms with life: moms pushing double strollers, buskers tapping on upside-down buckets, giggling teenagers with selfie sticks. But inside the austere marble temple of the Cyclorama, the atmosphere is far more sedate. Barely two dozen seats are taken as the 1:30 p.m. tour’s introductory film begins—filling not even a fourth of the theater. When the guide asks for questions from the audience, a woman in the back calls out, “Why is the Cyclorama moving?”
“I couldn’t tell you that,” he says. “We actually heard about the move on the news, like everyone else.”
Another guide, Derrick Williams, later says that the flow of visitors has definitely been up, but it’s unpredictable. He recalls a recent morning when only a single guest showed up for the 9:30 a.m. tour, but the afternoon brought in more than 200.
What’s certain is that The Battle of Atlanta will experience a ceasefire of sorts, at least for the foreseeable future. Its new home in Buckhead isn’t expected to open until 2017.
And technically, this isn’t the first time the painting has hit the road. The panorama began as a traveling campaign poster. It was commissioned in 1885 by presidential candidate John Logan, who’d fought in Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. After touring the country and changing hands multiple times, the painting eventually landed on Atlanta’s Edgewood Avenue in 1892. Coca-Cola magnate Ernest Woodruff bought it at an auction the following year, then sold it to George Valentine Gress, founder of Grant Park Zoo (now known as Zoo Atlanta). Gress donated the Cyclorama to the city in 1898. It moved into its stately—and most importantly, fire-proof—Grant Park digs in 1921. The diorama wasn’t added until the mid-1930s. A major renovation in the early 1980s introduced the rotating stadium seats.
Our first cycle around the cylindrical auditorium features a homespun recorded narration by Shepperd Strudwick, who sounds like a low-rent Hal Holbrook. The shrill trumpet crescendos and sentimental woodwinds bring to mind Rankin-Bass TV specials from the early ’70s. The dated soundtrack and somewhat hokey introductory film (featuring the voice of James Earl Jones) will presumably be ditched in the Cyclorama’s new state-of-the-art exhibition hall—less cherished artifacts of other forgotten eras.
On our second turn around the room, a sense of vertigo sets in. Is the painting moving, or am I? Williams takes over as narrator of this rotation, reciting the sort of trivia that can also make your head spin. For example, the Cyclorama involves 18,000 gallons of oil paint clinging to almost 16,000 square feet of Belgian linen. If spread on the ground, it would be as big as a football field—yet the painting includes only one woman and only one African-American. Its original title wasn’t The Battle of Atlanta, but Logan’s Great Battle.
Cast members of Gone With the Wind came to see the Cyclorama during the movie’s premiere in 1939. Clark Gable joked that what the painting really needed was for his statue to be added to the mix, so then-mayor William Hartsfield did just that. Which explains why one the dying soldiers in the diorama bears an obvious resemblance to Rhett Butler.
“Keep smiling, Clark,” Williams said, “even though you’ve been shot in the gut.”
After the tour ends, questions about the upcoming move find staff members of the Cyclorama in a bittersweet mood, trying to keep smiling even though they’ll be jobless in a few weeks. Signs in the gift shop report that all sales are final; this is your last chance to buy a Civil War shot glass or Union soldier bobblehead doll.
Robinson, who’s been on staff at the Cyclorama for a decade, says he’s most proud of the programming he and his team developed during the past few years to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
“We set out to expand on the conversation and go beyond the typical things people talk about,” he says. “We really wanted to look at the human aspects of the war, what the people were actually going through, such as those who lived in the city during the siege on Atlanta.” Other programs have touched on more controversial topics ranging from black soldiers fighting in the Confederacy to Native American slave owners. He believes that the quality of the programming has helped to increase the attraction’s profile and make the Cyclorama a candidate to become part of the Atlanta History Center.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Robinson says, “but still, it’s bittersweet. We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in to this place. This has been the people’s place, you know? We’re the ambassadors of Atlanta.”
Note: After June 30th the historic Battle of Atlanta will no longer be displayed at Cyclorama. The painting will be relocated to the Atlanta History Center’s campus.