Saving The ”IMAX Of Its Day”

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The Boston Cyclorama was actually the second of four the artist produced. After churning out the canvases for Chicago and Boston, Philippoteaux went on to create replicas for both New York City and Philadelphia. Their success inevitably inspired imitations. Contemporaries created panoramic paintings of the Battles of Shiloh and of Atlanta (the latter is still on view there) and the duel between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack , to name a few.

As for the popular Boston picture by Philippoteaux, it was taken down in 1891 and relegated to storage for 18 years, rolled up in a wooden crate on which fire, rain, and vandals all took a toll. Not until 1910 did a Newark, New Jersey, merchant rescue it for display in his department store—in sections. Two years later he shipped it to Gettysburg, in time for it to be restored and displayed during the golden anniversary of the battle in 1913. For the next 46 years the Cyclorama remained on view there in an unheated circular wooden building on Cemetery Hill. The remarkable thing is that it survived at all.

 

But the years of sloppy maintenance took their toll. During the picture’s half-century and more in storage, transit, or housed in its glorified shed on the battlefield, 15 feet of sky had been damaged and removed and one or two panels of battle action lost, comprising around 37 feet of detail. In 1962 the surviving elements of the Cyclorama were at last professionally restored and rehung in a modern new circular building in the Gettysburg National Military Park. There it has remained a tourist attraction for generations. But even in its new setting, this greatest surviving example of a once passionately admired form of military art suffered the effects of age, exposure, natural deterioration, and subsequent restorations that probably did more to damage than rehabilitate it.

Hoisted around the circumference of its huge drum-shaped building, but badly glued to a new backing, the three-ton painting later sagged and blistered alarmingly. Water leaks and imperfect climate control further violated the integrity of the fragile canvas, causing discoloration, blistering, buckling, and ruffling in spots, while its heft strained the seams holding it together in vertical strips every 11 or 19 feet. Fire and rot had left their marks earlier, and now some clumsily overpainted repairs began to flake away. Experts were brought in to analyze the picture.

In November 2003, after some 90 years on public view at Gettysburg, the Philippoteaux Cyclorama was temporarily closed to launch a desperately needed $9 million rehabilitation ($5 million of it federally funded). The painstaking project is scheduled to take three years. A team of restoration specialists went to work immediately on two representative panels and then reopened the Cyclorama to the public several months later (with the two treated sections temporarily masked under an opaque veil). Work will continue in incremental stages for the next few years, during which the public will occasionally get to observe some of the project in progress. Ultimately the new Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, working with the National Park Service, will shut down and move the fully restored Cyclorama—panel by panel (27 in all)—and reassemble it inside a newly built state-of-the-art gallery by 2006. In its new setting, the Cyclorama will resume its place as the main attraction in an all-new visitors’ center.

On a recent visit to the site, I found the two most afflicted sections of the work obscured by newly erected scaffolding that contained work platforms at several different levels. The setup replicated precisely the kind of scaffold that Philippoteaux and his team of artists had employed to create the original. Perched like vertical assembly-line workers, specialists painted simultaneously at different levels to complete the sky, army, and underbrush (the original mammoth canvas was finished in less than a year).

Today’s workers could be observed carefully rubbing the picture with specially prepared chemical solvents, devised after substantial research and experimentation, to clean off nearly 40 years of grime and dust. The pungent smell of cleaning fluid filled the vast, quiet chamber.

All told, the project is nothing less than the American equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration.

Part of this expert team is Perry Huston, a noted conservator from Fort Worth, working with David Olin, a conservator from Great Falls, Virginia, with help from European panorama specialists. Slender, dapper, and soft-spoken, Huston guides me through my own personal, up-close inspection of the preliminary work, thoughtfully asking, as we ascend the rungs of each ladder on our way to the crest of the scaffolding, whether the height bothers me. I avoid answering—but mostly avoid looking down. Ultimately, however, the view is worth the vertigo. From the high vantage point, the canvas takes on a new dimension and depth that I would never have expected. I was seeing the panorama, at last, the way viewers did in Boston in 1884.