There and Back Again
The story of a gift that’s changing Atlanta’s past, present and future
Once upon a time the American Panorama Co. in Milwaukee hired a group of German artists to create an enormous work of art to depict and celebrate the Union victory in the Battle of Atlanta, an important win in the Civil War.
The year was 1886 and cycloramas were all the rage – and were quite the moneymakers. At one point there were about 40 of these enormous works – the Battle of Atlanta is 49 feet tall, more than 370 feet in circumference and weighs 10,000 pounds – depicting nature scenes, religious dramas and battles on canvas and displayed in the round, traveling the United States.
They were kind of the IMAX of their time, says Gordon Jones, senior military curator at the Atlanta History Center (AHC).
These works of art and entertainment would set up in a city and stay until the audience ran dry. At that point, the cyclorama would be torn from the nails that held it at the top, rolled up and taken to the next town.
In 1892, the cyclorama landed in Atlanta. Not only does the artwork depict a Union win, but, even worse from a white Southern point of view, one section of the painting shows Confederate captives being led away by Union soldiers. Atlanta leaders wouldn’t stand for it. An artist was hired to make the painting more palatable for a local audience, including repainting those captives into blue-coated Union soldiers.
At that time, says Jones, “A lot of people did not even realize that this painting was made in the north, did not realize when it was made.”
To add to the sense of what’s up is down, an ad for the attraction ran in The Atlanta Constitution touting “the only Confederate victory ever painted.” Suddenly, a work of art, a commercial endeavor depicting a Union win, had become something else entirely.
“Instead of a Northern victory, which it was, it’s advertised as a Confederate victory,” Jones says. “It’s a pretty big shift.”
The cyclorama retained its Confederate makeover through the early part of the 20th century as it stayed in Atlanta. In 1921, a building specifically designed to house the cyclorama was built in Grant Park, just south of downtown. The painting and the diorama at the base became must-stops for tourists, schoolchildren and visiting celebrities. A trip by the white stars of the film Gone with the Wind (the black stars were not welcome) resulted in the face of one of the soldiers being painted over in the likeness of Clark Gable.
Throughout much of the century, it remained an ode to the Civil War that almost was, despite a restoration in the 1930s that removed all traces of Southern victory.
But Atlanta changed. Fast forward to 1979. Then Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, reminded people that “the cyclorama depicts the Battle of Atlanta, a battle that the right side won,” he said, “a battle that helped free my ancestors.” It was a major shift in the telling of the story of the Battle of Atlanta’s depiction on the cyclorama.
Meanwhile, another story was going on right next door to the cyclorama building. Zoo Atlanta, which opened in 1889, was growing. Despite their proximity to one another, the privately owned Zoo Atlanta and the city of Atlanta’s cyclorama had few crossover visitors, says Raymond King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.
“There was essentially no relationship [between the zoo and the cyclorama],” he says. “When we got privatized, they did not get privatized. They were still owned by the city. We had no involvement whatsoever in running it. There never has been a whole lot of synergy between people who would come to the zoo and people who would come to the cyclorama.”
As our story nears the present, the zoo was going about its business with a fully fleshed out strategic plan that didn’t include any mention of the cyclorama. But all of that was about to be turned on its head.
The year was 2011. The cyclorama painting was deteriorating and in need of restoration. The building that housed the painting was also in need of work. And attendance was down. Then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed set up a commission to study the situation and make recommendations for what to do with the cyclorama – both the artwork and the building.
The committee traveled to Gettysburg to study their cyclorama, the only other one in the country, which had been refurbished in 2008. They talked to community leaders, contractors and citizens and put together recommendations for the mayor.
“The three options were: come to the history center, which was the preferred one,” says Sheffield Hale, who was on the committee and has since become president and CEO of the history center.” There was an advocate for taking it downtown, putting it somewhere around [Centennial Olympic] Park; and the third option was to keep it where it is and either keep it limping along or mothball it.”
Reed accepted the recommendations, then got on with other business of the city. Until one day, in January 2013, Howard Pousner, then a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote a story about the committee’s recommendations that appeared in the Sunday paper. It was a story that would change lives, both animal and human; change the city of Atlanta; change the trajectory of the cyclorama; and change the way history is depicted.
Hale likes to tell the story of the phone call that transformed so much, and it’s clear he’s told it more than once. It’s a great story.
“Lloyd and Mary [Ann] Whitaker are … reading the paper,” he says, of the fairy godfather and godmother of our fable, “and they see that the cyclorama could be moved and the history center is an option. And they said, ‘this might be the thing that we’ve been looking for, our legacy for Atlanta.’”
The next morning, Whitaker called Hale, who had only been president and CEO for a few months.
“I’ve known Lloyd,” Hale says, warming to his tale. “I’d done some legal work for him as a young associate. … He knew my parents. But … as far as I know, he’d never been over to the history center. He hadn’t given us any money. He hadn’t been a donor, hadn’t been a member.”
Hale had no inkling of what was to come when Whitaker asked him to lunch.
“He wanted to talk to me about something,” Hale says. “I said ‘sure.’ … So we go to lunch on Tuesday, after that Sunday. He says, ‘Sheffield, if Mary Ann and I gave you $10 million, could you move the cyclorama to the history center?’”
It was a lunch the consequences of which would ripple out across the city.
At the zoo, no one was thinking in particular about the elephants – at least no more than they were thinking about the other animals. But one of those ripples was about to wash over the elephants with an offer the zoo couldn’t refuse.
Animal research brings changes in best practices for housing animals in zoos. Because elephants are social creatures, a zoo needs to always have at least three – that way if one dies, there are still two left to be company for each other. Zoo Atlanta didn’t have enough space in its elephant habitat for three, and its two female elephants had been grandfathered in. That was going to have to change eventually.
The move of the cyclorama to the history center became the answer to the elephants’ need for more companionship.
“When the opportunity came to life, we had other strategic priorities than the cyclorama,” King says. “We did not expect it to happen when it happened. It wasn’t in our strategic plan. It wasn’t in our master plan. But the painting really couldn’t be moved by the mayor if somebody wasn’t going to take over that building.”
And given its proximity to the zoo, right near the entrance, it made sense for the zoo to take it. In the end, the zoo got the building and five acres of land from the city.
The Whitaker’s gift – which will ensure that the cyclorama can be maintained for decades to come – became the seed money that grew capital campaigns at both the history center and the zoo.
The years-long, multi-faceted project resulted in a new building at the AHC, the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building, that houses the refurbished Battle of Atlanta. The painting was moved to the new location in 2017 and restored, including restoration of three good-sized panels that had been removed from the massive artwork over the years. But, more importantly, the cyclorama is being interpreted once again as a work of art, built in the north and depicting a Union victory. Its history as entertainment, commercial endeavor and propaganda is covered in this place where history is celebrated – warts and all. In April, The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation presented the AHC an Excellence in Preservation Award for its efforts.
A sparkling, glass-filled space, the Rollins Gallery was built adjacent to the cyclorama building to house the refurbished Texas locomotive that had also been at the Grant Park location.
Funds were raised to resurrect the Grant Park cyclorama building as office and event space overlooking the new elephant habitat African Savanna, made possible by the gift from the city of the five acres. Three elephants – with room for a total of seven – giraffes and zebras all roam the savanna, creating a stunning backdrop to the event space.
“There’s really nothing else like it in the country,” King says of the new event space, Savanna Hall, which opened in February. “It’s a one-of-a-kind place. There’s nowhere else in the state you can go and feel like you’re in Africa. And that’s what we’ve done is bring Africa to Atlanta and the state of Georgia.
“What’s going to be nice is all our zoo visitors will get to enjoy this,” he says. “People who come to events, who may not think they have any interest in animals. … they’re going to look out and go ‘Wow! This isn’t the zoo I grew up with. I really need to come back and enjoy the rest of the zoo.’”
Great as they are, those wow moments aren’t the best thing about this project. One of the best and most surprising things – both Hale and King agree – is the lack of controversy this move of something so entrenched in Grant Park, entrenched in the minds of Atlantans, stirred.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s hard to please everybody,” King says. “You never know what people are going to have in their mind, in terms of expectations. So I expected we’d get some negative feedback. … I haven’t heard one ounce of negative feedback. Everybody has just been like, ‘This is like nothing we’ve seen at the zoo before.’”
It’s the same story at the history center. “You hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” Hale says of the project. “And given everything that’s going on in the world with [Confederate] monuments and everybody’s division and people are inflamed, what was going to be the receptivity of this from any side? Because there was change involved. … And there’s been zero controversy.”
It’s a testament to the considered approach of the project from beginning to end – including the way the history center is interpreting the cyclorama.
“We’re trying to give information in ways that people can receive it,” Hale says. “Give people opportunities to have different perspectives. We’re not trying to change people’s minds.
“If you get history down to where the goats can get it, then we can have a discussion that’s not about any preconceived beliefs,” he says. “Lets just talk about the facts. … That’s one of the things we hope that we can do at the history center on lots of issues. But the cyclorama is the perfect tool to start with because of the way it’s been interpreted and misinterpreted and reinterpreted based on false assumptions of fact.”
The new interpretation may be based in fact, but the story still has the ring of a fairy tale. And, in the way of many fairy tales, it started with one gift that led to several happily ever afters.
“The endowment gift came to ensure [the cyclorama] was going to have a bright future if it could be moved,” King says. “That freed up the capital to be able to restore it and move it over to the new building [at the AHC]. That was just the first domino in what was a transaction that impacted Atlanta and the state on multiple fronts.
“The cyclorama painting benefited the history center. [The zoo] then benefited,” he adds. “And even Oakland Cemetery benefited because the history center had a greenhouse on the site where they were going to build the cyclorama building. The cemetery needed a greenhouse. They took the greenhouse. So it was a nice win-win-win.”