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Huge piece of Atlanta history awaits its fate

3 options on table for Cyclorama's home. Panoramic battle depiction needs $8.2M restoration.

By Jeremiah McWilliams and Howard Pousner



On a sweltering July day a century and a half ago, tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers struggled for control of Atlanta's crucial railroad junctions. Now, the painting that commemorates the fight known as the Battle of Atlanta is the center of its own tug of war.

Since 1921, a building in Grant Park has housed the massive, panoramic painting. But now, with the painting in need of a restoration estimated at $8.2 million, city officials are considering the best place and use for it.

An advisory group whose members included downtown business leaders, historians, city officials and foundation leaders, recommended three options last year, with the top two suggesting a move to a new location. The recommendations:

Restoring and moving the Cyclorama to the Atlanta History Center, at a cost of $29 million to $31 million. A 15,000 boost to the History Center's 220,000 annual visitation is projected.

Restoring and moving the exhibit downtown, at a cost of $40 million to $42 million. Projected attendance: 160,000-190,000.

Restoring the painting and repairing the Grant Park building, at a cost of between $12 million and $14 million. Projected attendance: about 60,000.

The report, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request, says relocating to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead offers an opportunity to pair one of the city's most valuable historic artifacts with one of the country's most highly regarded Civil War collections. The history center's permanent exhibit includes more than 1,500 Union and Confederate relics.

Not so fast, says Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown-focused business alliance, which says the best spot for the painting is in downtown Atlanta. There, boosters hope cross-marketing with other tourism attractions could boost the number of visitors to as many as 190,000 per year --- more than triple the current draw.

At the same time, some Grant Park residents say the painting should stay in its historic home near the battlefield site.

A decision could be made by Mayor Kasim Reed and the City Council by the end of the year, but the painting would not be moved until after 2014, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta.

The painting, weighing nine tons and measuring 42 feet tall and 358 feet in circumference, has an appraised value of $25 million. It is among the world's largest paintings and is one of only two of comparable size in the United States. The other American cyclorama, depicting the Battle of Gettysburg, is in the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Top city officials say Atlanta intends to retain ownership of the painting, but the city is exploring public-private partnerships that allow other entities to run the exhibit, which attracted nearly 54,000 last year, many of them school children.

Though Reed has not publicly sided with any of the recommendations of the task force, his administration appears to lean toward the downtown option.

"Right now, the Mayor has a tremendous focus on downtown, the [Atlanta Falcons] stadium, Underground, " said George Dusenbury, commissioner of parks, recreation and cultural affairs. "The direction I think we're going to see the next three to six months is how the Cyclorama may fit into that vision."

A key consideration of the advisory panel in making the History Center its first choice was deciding whether the painting is more of an artifact than an attraction. For artifacts, preservation --- not profits --- is the top priority, the panel wrote. But if the Cyclorama is to be an attraction, the painting must draw enough visitation and revenue to be self-sustaining, the report said.

Downtown Atlanta attracts an estimated 4.5 million people per year, a far greater potential audience than those enjoyed by Grant Park, where it is next door to Zoo Atlanta but does not enjoy much crossover, or the History Center.

"It has a better chance of being an attraction somewhere in the central corridor, where many of our attractions are, " Central Atlanta Progress president A.J. Robinson said. "You get visitors, you have a revenue stream. I think it should go where you get the most eyeballs. There's a heck of a lot of potential."

But having a larger potential audience and being able to tap it are two different things, History Center president and CEO Sheffield Hale said.

"The question is, is it sufficient on its own to attract enough visitation to make it economically sustainable in the long-term, " said Hale, like Robinson a task force member. "I don't think so. Its days as a stand-alone attraction are over, in my estimation."

The Cyclorama's presentation is decidedly old-school. Visitors sit in a darkened theater as a narrator's voice recounts the battle's progress. The seating area rotates to give viewers a full view of the painting plus a diorama showing railroad tracks, wagons and three-dimensional figures of soldiers. The painting is wrinkling because of the way it is hung --- an expensive problem to fix.

In Pennsylvania, restoration of the "The Battle of Gettysburg" painting took five years and cost about $15 million. As part of the National Park Service, the National Military Park was able to secure partial funding for the restoration through Congress, an avenue not expected to be available to Atlanta's Cyclorama.

In downtown Atlanta, however, a new attraction potentially could qualify for financial support from tax allocation districts. In Buckhead, where the History Center is roughly two-thirds of its way toward completing a $22 million capital improvement campaign, there is no such tool available.

"I'm not negative on it at all, but I'm not going to tell you I think we can raise $30 million in the next two or three years of all private money, " said Hale, who makes no secret of the History Center's interest in the "very powerful and important artifact."

In the meantime, city leaders have had preliminary conversations with the Atlanta-based J. Bulow Campbell Foundation, which contributed to the Cyclorama previously, and other potential funders.

"I do think there's interest in the private sector, " Dusenbury said. "If there was no interest, we would not be where we are today."

Cyclorama

The Atlanta Cyclorama posted a modest attendance increase last year after several years of decline. But attendance still pales in comparison to other local attractions. Two average Atlanta Braves home games would exceed the Cyclorama's numbers, for example. Meanwhile next door, Zoo Atlanta attracts about 700,000 people annually --- roughly 12 times the Cyclorama's five-year average.

Year Operating profit/loss Attendance

2008 $110,000 loss 65,675 visitors

2009 $144,000 loss 65,304 visitors

2010 $9,000 profit 62,832 visitors

2011 $18,000 profit 53,000 visitors

2012 $ 44,000 profit 53,790 visitors

Source: City of Atlanta. Dates refer to fiscal years. Profit/loss refers to operations, not major capital projects.

Cyclorama history

1886: Completed by American Panorama Co., Milwaukee

1887: First displayed in Detroit.

1890: Paul Atkinson of Madison buys the "Atlanta" for $2,500 and displays it in Chattanooga.

1892: Atkinson moves the "Atlanta" to a wooden building on Edgewood Avenue in downtown Atlanta.

1893: Atkinson sells the painting to a Florida businessman.

January 1893: A freak snowstorm caves in the Edgewood structure's roof.

August 1893: The "Atlanta" is sold at auction for $1,100 to collect rent due to the Edgewood property's landlord. Later that year the painting moves to a wooden structure in Grant Park.

1898: Atlanta businessman George V. Gress gives the cyclorama to the city.

1921: A new "fireproof" cyclorama building opens in Grant Park, with a rotunda that is several feet too short in circumference for the complete painting. Historian Wilbur Kurtz wrote that the city utilized a "Procrustean" solution: lopping off several feet of the painting to make it fit.

1979-82: The cyclorama undergoes a $15 million renovation, which includes building a rotating gallery for the audience.

2008: Restoration of the Gettysburg Cyclorama prompts calls for new restoration and possible relocation of Atlanta painting.

2011-2012: Advisory group's report lays out options for Cyclorama.

2014: 150th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta.

Bo Emerson

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