- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

DAYTON, Ohio -

Imagine walking up a long, dark ramp and emerging onto a platform, where you suddenly find yourself at the very center of Pickett’s charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In the foreground, all around are life-sized soldiers and weaponry frozen in combat among the trees and greenery, the action blending in the distance into a five-story panoramic mural re-creating 25 square miles of the hallowed Civil War battlefield.

For late 19th-century spectators, the immersion in such a drama must have rivaled the sensory plunge of today’s Omnimax cinemas. It is no wonder that the Dayton Cyclorama was one of the region’s top tourist attractions in the 1890s, helping to draw several hundred thousand visitors each year to the grounds of what is now the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

All that remain of the 50-foot-tall, 320-foot-round rotunda are Gettysburg Avenue and a miniature photographic reproduction of the display now in a vault at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind.

The fate of those photographs depends on a $5,000 restoration that Lincoln Museum officials say isn’t worth the investment, given their fragile condition.

“The photographs were glued with some terrible glue on canvas, and it has bled through,” said Cindy Van Horn, registrar of the museum. “We had a conservator look at them, and even if we spent the thousands of dollars on them, they can’t guarantee we could exhibit them.”

But officials at the Montgomery County Historical Society think the photographs are worth saving, even at a risk.

“There are people all over the world interested in this cyclorama,” said Curt Dalton, a curator at the historical society.

Mr. Dalton, who has spent the past two years researching the cyclorama, said its history is as full of unlikely twists and turns as the famed battle it depicts. Dayton was one of the few smaller cities in the world, perhaps the only, to have its own cyclorama.

In the late 19th century, cycloramas (from the Greek words, “cycl” meaning “to circle,” and “orama” meaning “to view”) were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Europe and the United States. Hundreds of the giant circular canvases, many stretching more than a football field in length, were painted for hanging in specially built rotundas. They often depicted well-known battles, historic cities or exotic climes.

The miniature of the Dayton Cyclorama in Fort Wayne is a copy of a copy. The original Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, is on display at Gettysburg National Military Park and is one of three cycloramas left in North America. The others are in Atlanta and Quebec.

Although the Dayton Cyclorama was not as detailed nor as vivid as Philippoteaux’s masterpiece at Gettysburg National Park, the reproduction might have historical value, especially if it was based on research beyond that of Philippoteaux’s. Given the proximity of so many Civil War veterans at the Dayton Soldier’s Home, chances are it was.

“I don’t know if that gives it national significance, but it certainly has regional significance,” said Scott Hartwig, a historian at Gettysburg National Park.

The European artists who specialized in designing cycloramas were much in demand in the states, and Philippoteaux was perhaps the best-known.

His sketches were engraved on glass negatives, then projected on giant canvases to be outlined and filled in by an army of lesser-talented artists. Portrait painters were hired to do the faces of generals and other well-known figures to assure their likenesses.


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