The Buffalo Cyclorama Building

When I moved to Buffalo, one of the first buildings that caught my eye was the Cyclorama building at 369 Franklin. When I was growing up I had the opportunity to visit the cyclorama at Gettysburg National Park. The cyclorama depicted Pickett’s charge as if you were standing on Cemetery Ridge. I remember the whole experience of Gettysburg being somewhat traumatic and the cyclorama depiction so real to me that it was disorienting. (Interestingly, the Battle of Gettysburg was displayed at the Buffalo Cyclorama in 1890 for about 2 years.)
The cyclorama, as originally patented, is a huge panoramic picture displayed in 360 degrees so that the viewer is completely surrounded by the image. The painting is lit from above through a diffused light coming through vellum or a glazed dome; there are no visible borders to the scene at the top, or at the “ground” which blends seamlessly into faux landscaping. The viewer is fixed in place and observes the panorama from a raised viewing platform in the center of the cyclorama that is reached by climbing a stair case. The effect is to confuse the eye as to what is reality by taking away all other points of reference so that you truly feel you are visiting that sight. To create the illusion the painter is required from the beginning to determine the location of the viewer and therefore the dimensions and design of the exhibition space.
A patent for the invention of this method of displaying large views of nature, originally called “la nature a coup d’oeil”, was taken out in London in 1787 by Robert Baker. The artist is credited with inventing the idea while in debtor’s prison where he experimented with sketching landscapes on a wall lit by a small overhead window. The word panorama was coined in 1793 to advertise a later exhibit by Baker, and comes from Greek words that translate to “all viewing”. According to the ACMI (Arts and Crafts Media Institute) this may be the first incident of a patented mix of art and technology. The patent was interesting because it mostly was concerned more with the viewing requirements of the panorama than its construction.
It seems that panoramas were a phenomena of their day, accused of overshadowing “true artists” with their mass appeal and accessibility. Many unusual, well known figures of the time were involved in panoramic art including Daguerre the father of modern photography whose diorama exhibits paid for his work in photography, and Robert Fuller better known for the invention of the steam engine, but also an artist who held the license for panoramas in France. The panorama is the precursor to moving pictures, cinema, and IMAX ….but I digress….
In 1887 a group called Buffalo Cyclorama Company opened an exhibit in London of a 400 foot long, 50 feet high canvas depicting the grandeur of Niagara Falls as a promotion of the Niagara region. The exhibit was a financial success and the group arranged for another painting, “The View of Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion” by Paul Philippoteaux a famous French artist, to be exhibited to the Buffalo audience and as a tourist attraction.
Cyrus K. Porter & Sons were hired as architects to design and build the Cyclorama building on Franklin to house the painting. Cyrus K. Porter was a prolific architect for 2 decades in Buffalo and is responsible for Trinity Church and the current Porter Avenue Karpeles Manuscript museum among others. The cyclorama building was constructed in 2 months and consists of solid red brick exterior walls that are approximately 17 inches thick and rest atop a mortar and rubble foundation. There are no interior load bearing walls, timber and steel trusses span about 63 feet from a central interior column to exterior masonry piers. The Cyclorama building was ready to receive the commissioned painting and opened to the public in September 1888.
By all accounts the exhibit was a great success with, by one count, 1000 visitors a day and remained for 2 years before it was replaced by “The Battle of Gettysburg” by Karl Frosh, which also was exhibited successfully for about 2 years. Both of these paintings can still be viewed, “The Crucifixion” at the shrine of Ste Anne de Beaupre, Quebec, Canada, and “The Battle of Gettysburg” at Gettysburg National Park. During the Pan American Exposition in 1901 Buffalo may have vied with Paris for the sheer number of cycloramas, a Midway advertisement from the Exposition talks about as many as 10 cycloramas of subjects such as the Johnstown flood and the inside of Kilauea Volcano, which used the electric lights to create the illusion of heaving lava flows and lightening.
After a short 4-year run cycloramas went out of favor, and the Buffalo Cyclorama was closed. The building was acquired by the City of Buffalo in 1907 for $40,000. In 1913 the building was deeded to the Trustees of Grosvenor Library but used for a livery stable, a roller skating rink, and a taxi cab garage to generate revenue. In 1937 the building was condemned but escaped the wrecking ball when it was taken on as a federal project under the WPA and renovated as a reading room for the library after passionate pleas to save the building.
In 1954 the building was back in the hands of the city and county and falling into disrepair. In 1980 it appears a group called the Cyclorama Company of Buffalo acquired the deed, and in 1986 the deteriorating building was fortunate to be purchased by the Ciminelli Construction Company and renovated into the current well-maintained, interesting office space it now is. In 1991 the building was designated Historic Building of the Year by the Buffalo Building Owners and Managers Association.
A helpful history of the building was researched by Linda Fiscus of Cimenelli The and the Ciminelli Company has made historic pictures of the building available to the Library of Congress for its HABS project (Historic American Buildings Survey) where they are viewable by the public.
Buffalo has one of only 4 existing historical cyclorama buildings in the US, the others being in Boston (now the art center), Atlanta (still exhibiting a panorama), and Gettysburg (currently in a fight over demolition of the old cyclorama building). There are only about 30 cycloramas in the world, including a brand new one that opened to great fan-fare in Holland last year with a panorama of Big Sur as the subject and an excellent website that demonstrates the building of a cyclorama and the painting of a panorama for anyone who is interested. http://www.andrebalyon.com/panorama-big-sur.php


Photo by Chuck LaChiusa
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About the author  ⁄ Great Lakes United

6 comments
3630
3630

What a wacky building type. It could make money with a revolving restaurant inside...

5116
5116

I am from Georgia and in the 8th grade (at the time) your "history/geography/social studies" class was titled Georgia History and encompassed all things Georgia. The thing which all kids waited for came near the end of the school year when we boarded busses and trekked the approximately 4 hours to Atlanta for a little field trip treat. Of course, being good teachers they had to throw in a little "educational" fun and we stopped off at the Cyclorama before heading to more fun sites like the World of Coca Cola.

The Atlanta Cyclorama is a viewing of the Civil War, it was representing the Battle for Atlanta, if I'm not mistaken.

While it was mildly interesting to a young boy who was growing up in the early 90's, it would hold more interest now. I remember the seating rotates along the picture so it seems like a moving image almost. There were sounds of booming cannon and such effects to try and immerse the viewer into the scene. Probably seeing it now I would appreciate the fine details of the painting more. After all the painting was done over a hundred years ago and is the size of a building.

For those few readers able to visit Atlanta, I would not list it as a top 10 exhibit, there is far more interesting things to take advantage of, but for those interested in history, architecture, art, or have a few glinting moments free, take up the chance to see the Cyclorama. No promises that you won't feel outcast as a "damn Yankee".

5102
5102

Thanks for this history lesson! I drove past the building the other day and wondered "wha'the heck?"

1772
1772

Pretty interesting.

489
489

[a week and do a]....sorry, Sunday morning lol

489
489

what a great lesson in history! me thinks BRO should pick a building/mansion a week a do a feature/history story. much better reading than the updates of what Al is going to do with his little cabin.

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