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The northwest corner of Ohio and Illinois. The Cyclorama towered over the neighboring Rink Store. (Image: Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

The first buildings that always stuck out when driving into Indianapolis in the 1980s and 1990s were the two large domed structures that hosted our professional sports franchises. Surprisingly enough, if one stumbles across a photograph of Indianapolis from the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth century, another dome hovered majestically above the cityscape. The building belonged to an attraction known as the Indianapolis Cyclorama.

It’s hard to imagine constructing a building for the sole purpose of housing a single mural, but that is precisely what happened in 1888, just a few hundred feet east of the Indiana Statehouse. Moving pictures were still nearly two decades away, and home entertainment options were limited to a good book. The public was eager for distractions, and thus came the Cyclorama fad of the late nineteenth century. The concept was quite simple; a team of artists would work on a gigantic canvas to recreate a historical event, usually a famous battle or religious scene. The painting would then go on a nationwide tour. Major cities built large circular buildings so that the artwork could be displayed in a manner that allowed patrons to have a 360-degree view. The intent was to have different works of art rotate throughout the year to keep the paying customers interested.

A view looking southeast shows the cyclorama. The taller building to the right would be the Thomas Building as the Barnes and Thornburg Building was not constructed until 1912 (Courtesy Herman List Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

View looking southeast shows the Cyclorama. The taller building in the distance behind it was the Thomas Building, site of the 1912 Merchants Bank Building, now Barnes and Thornburg.      (Image: Herman List Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

A Civil War scene was the most famous painting displayed in Indianapolis. The Battle of Atlanta, painted in Milwaukee in 1885 and 1886, under the direction of German artist William Wehner, went on public display in 1888. An excruciating amount of detail went into the creation of this artwork. A team of artists traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to observe the site of the battle from a large wooden tower. Civil War veterans and area residents came by the site to recreate scenes and provide their memories of the actual events. The Battle of Atlanta arrived in Indianapolis after stops in Detroit and Minneapolis. This became its last stop. Financial difficulties plagued Wehner, and ownership was relinquished to the Miler family, who owned the site of the Cyclorama. The painting remained on display until 1892.

The Battle of Atlanta that once hung in the cyclorama (Courtesy ebay)

A portion of The Battle of Atlanta that once hung in the Cyclorama. (Image: eBay)

The cyclorama fad ended by the 1890s, and the city was then blessed with a white elephant of a building. Other uses were attempted. Exhibitions staged under the domed roof  included a demonstration of an early automobile. The final use, of all things, was a wild animal exhibit put on by Englishman Frank Bostock. Some brief searching indicates that this was probably not the most humane type of operation. In 1903, the strange building found itself in the path of a speeding train, as the site became home to the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, but thankfully not all was lost. Hoosiers escaping the cold winter weather who pass through Atlanta, Georgia can stop by Grant Park and view Wehner’s “Battle of Atlanta” on display in a modern day cyclorama.

What have been some of the most memorable traveling exhibits that you have witnessed over the years?

 

Printed Sources:

The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1994

The Battle of Atlanta, Terrell Publishing, 1991

The Death of Sport, Maryland Historical Society, 2013

5 responses to “At Your Leisure: The Cyclorama Fad Hits Indianapolis”

  1. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    I have visited the Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama in Grant Park (named after the engineer who accomplished the connection of the Western and Atlantic RR and the Georgia RR at “railroad gulch”, which became Atlanta; I believe Grant Park was originally his country estate outside Atlanta that he donated as a park similar to Michael Spades donating a portion of his estate to Indianapolis as Spades Park) next to the Atlanta Zoo…the Cyclorama has been well preserved, and provides an excellent “real time” view and feeling of what the battle was like…the emphasis was on the battles east of Atlanta near the Georgia RR’s route east to Decatur around July 22, 1864…or thereabouts…

  2. Gene Meier says:

    I am writing the first spreadsheet from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. On September 18,2003 I found in the display case of Milwaukee County Historical Society the F.W.Heine diaries 1879-1921. These illustrated diaries are the only narrative of a panorama company, that of William Wehner (1847-1928) of Chicago who built his panorama studio in downtown Milwaukee. From 1885-88 Wehner produced 2 units of BATTLE OF ATLANTA, 2 units of BATTLE OF MISSIONARY RIDGE & LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN and 3 units of JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION. The diaries needed to be transcribed in German, translated to English, scanned to computer. Michael Kutzer, born 1941 in Leipzig like Heine is transcriber of the project. The Heine diaries are as important to the history of rotunda panorama as the letters of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh are important to the history of Post Impressionism. Van Gogh died in 180 and his correspondence was gathered and soon published in France. A short time later this material was translated and published world-wide. When Heine died in 1921 the significance of his diaries was noted in the German language press BUT NEVER PUBLISHED. The Heine family donated the diaries to MCHS in the mid 1960s. A few volumes were placed in the display case out front, the rest were put in a pasteboard box and placed beneath the desk of the curator, who kicked them every time he sat down at the desk. Michael recently released to me the years 1885-1893 to annotate, edit and index. INFO TO SHARE. Gene Meier, 1160 Bailey Road, Sycamore, Illinois 60178 815 895 4099 genemeier@frontier.com

  3. Gene Meier says:

    I am writing the first spreadsheet from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas. On September 18,2003 I found in the Milwaukee County Historical Society the F.W.Heine diaries 1879-1921. These illustrated diaries are the only narrative of a panorama company, that of William Wehner (1847-1928) of Chicago who built his panorama studio in downtown Milwaukee. From 1885-88 Wehner produced 2 units of BATTLE OF ATLANTA, 2 units of BATTLE OF MISSIONARY RIDGE & LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN and 3 units of JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION. The diaries needed to be transcribed in German, translated to English, scanned to computer. Michael Kutzer, born 1941 in Leipzig like Heine is transcriber of the project. The Heine diaries are as important to the history of 19th century rotunda panorama as the letters of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh are important to the history of Post Impressionism. INFO TO SHARE

  4. Bill Evans says:

    Thanks for this post on one of the most fascinating web sites around! I had no idea, as I usually don’t, and this interesting fact only heightens my interest in the history of one of the greatest cities in the Midwest. I’m glad to call Indy my home though I haven’t lived there for almost 40 years!

  5. Anonymous says:

    3.5

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