Atlanta History

Published on August 11th, 2017 |

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‘Battle of Atlanta’ to tell ‘whole story’ when it reopens at History Center

By Mary Welch

The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama debuted in 1886 and told the story of the North’s decisive 1864 victory, a pivotal win that helped re-elect President Abraham Lincoln and allowed him to continue the war efforts.

However, in 1898, the cyclorama, like so many of its kind, went bankrupt and the owners decided to give it to Atlanta. As it came down South, the script was re-written and it was less of

Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale speakinf Aug. 10 to the Buckhead Business Association. Photo by Mary Welch.

“depiction of a Northern victory as it was re-interpreted as a Confederate victory to a Lost Cause and Southern heritage,” says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.

It was, he noted “fake news.”

But rest assured when the Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama debuts in the fall of 2018 at its new home the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, it will tell the “whole story. The North will win the battle each and every time,” he promises.

Hale spoke to the Buckhead Business Association not only about the plans for the Atlanta Cyclorama, but the entire History Center as the museum seeks to truly integrate itself into the community.

“We want to be known as the cultural institution of Buckhead. We want people to come and spend a day with us and be a part of our community,” he says. “You’ll note that there are no fences around our property and that’s because we want to be part of the community. We want to have people walk into our space and be seamlessly linked with us.”

Among the actions taken toward that goal of community integration are the openings of Souper Jenny, the popular soup and salad restaurant, and a hi-end coffee shop slated to move into the space of the former bookstore. “We found people didn’t want to buy books next to people drinking coffee,” he says with a shrug. With people coming in the morning and night for coffee and soup during the day “We will become an all-day learning center without people realizing it.” The book store will be moved elsewhere in the complex.

Other outreach efforts include the speakers program, Back on the Farm events and Party of the Past aimed at younger members. “We realized that young people don’t want to pay for a history program but they will pay for beer. So we meet at different places and give a free 15-minute history talk and then they drink cold beer. It’s working.”

But the audience mostly wanted to hear about the cyclorama, which was moved from Grant Park where it was housed since 1921 to the new custom-built 23,000 square-foot Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building. The move is no easy feat that required close work with the highly specialized field of cyclorama conservationists. The canvas, which is 42 feet tall and a circumference of 359 feet, is fully restored to its original size and a new sky painted. To make it all happen, the painting was strength-tested, stabilized and the 128 plaster figures of the painting’s diorama spruced up.

Along with the Cyclorama is the restoration of the Texas, an important artifact of Atlanta’s early railroading days and starred in the 1862’s “Great Locomotive Chase.” The locomotive, which also was the inspiration for Buster Keaton’s “The General”, was restored at the North Carolina Transportation Museum and will open to the public this fall. When it opens, kids will be able to climb up on it and truly get a feel for the engine.

“We are here because of trains,” says Hale. “If it weren’t for trains making Atlanta a transportation hub we would not be here. I would be living on my country farm in Alabama and divorced because my wife won’t live in Alabama.”

Hale says it is too early to discuss marketing plans for the cyclorama’s opening. He says he expects that there will be an initial surge of attendance when it first opens and then will level off. It was also not be marketed or sold apart from the history center, meaning it’s a one-price-for-everything charge rather than an à la carte menu of charging separately for the history center’s museum, the Smith Family Farm and the cyclorama.

“Our goal is to keep giving people a reason to come back. We want to give them experiences they can’t see or get somewhere else,” Hale says. “And, it’s free parking.”

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