Cyclorama Building - Table of Contents
The Cyclorama Building
369 Franklin St., Buffalo NY
Architects: Cyrus K Porter & Son
By Meg Healy
The walls of the Cyclorama Building seem to echo with years of people walking in and out of it, multiple owners, uses and expectations. The walls of these buildings have been a constant, while outside, the city of Buffalo has changed drastically with each passing decade. Today it stands as a proud testimony to the collective spirit of the city, for it has been saved from the wrecking ball even when it seemed there was no purpose for it, and it is sturdy enough to have lasted for over a hundred years.
In the year 1888, the world was a vastly different place from what it is today, as was the city of Buffalo. Buffalo was booming with business, and rapidly becoming a big and bustling city. The roads had been paved, railroads had been completed, and electricity was being used from Niagara Falls.
Overseas, in Europe, architectural achievements like The Eiffel Tower were on their way to completion, and new technology and advancements were being made. The end of the nineteenth century was coming to a close and the fast-paced industrial age that was the twentieth century was drawing nearer.
This meant new forms of entertainment were coming into existence, for although radio, movies and television had not yet been invented and traveling was limited, people were still looking for interesting ways to pass the time. One such idea was referred to as a "cyclorama" and it basically sought to bring places and events that the average person would never get to experience otherwise right into their hometown.
An artist would research and visit places around the world, then come home and paint a giant, panoramic view of what he had found. The painting was then hung for the public to view and experience. In 1888, when Buffalo was a bustling town on the brink of becoming a major city, The Buffalo Cyclorama company, which was the first institution to act on this idea of experiencing a world away from one's own, commissioned a French painter to make a 400 foot long and 50 foot wide canvas of Niagara Falls, Buffalo's own natural wonder. The painting was exhibited in Paris, France, and London, England, to help promote the grandeur of Niagara Falls. It was such a success that the Buffalo Cyclorama Company decided to bring an exhibit like it onto American soil.
"The Crucifixion of Christ"
The Cyclorama Building was constructed on Franklin Street in Buffalo's Theater District to showcase the newest exhibit, "The Crucifixion of Christ." A German artist was commissioned to go to Jerusalem and do extensive research to create a panoramic view of what the city might have looked like on that day. It was hung in the Cyclorama Building, and the show opened on Saturday, September 6, 1888. The company was pleasantly surprised that the show was such a success, attracting over a thousand visitors a day. The building itself, though hastily built, proved to be solid and well constructed. Guests were impressed by the sixteen walls making up the circular room, the impressive stairway that led up to the platform around the panorama, and the large center column. The Buffalo Cyclorama Company invested in a boiler room for the edifice so that the exhibit could be more permanent.
[See Gene Meier, William Wehner's "Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion" Panorama]
"The Battle of Gettysburg"
"The Crucification of Christ" ended up running for two years, and it was followed by two more years of another exhibit, "The Battle of Gettysburg."
After "The Battle of Gettysburg," the cyclorama began to lose popularity. The building was acquired by the City of Buffalo for about $40,000 in the year 1910. After that, it served a variety of different purposes, including a roller skating rink, a livery and a taxi garage. The building gradually fell into disrepair, and it was in such bad shape by 1937 that it was condemned. However, that year it was taken on by the Works Progress Administration, and new windows, a new floor and a new roof, as well as an additional room were added to the building. The total cost of repairing it was $36,000.
The Grosvenor Library took the building from the government and on February 15, 1942 they opened their circular reading room and lecture halls. It was used for twenty one years after by scholars, students and other library patrons.
In 1963, the Grosvenor Library closed and combined with other libraries, and the reading room was shut down. For the next twenty five years the Cyclorama Building stood vacant.
An office building
Hope for the Cyclorama Building arrived next in 1985, when Mr. Frank Ciminelli purchased it for $110,000. However, the next two years proved to be a battle with the state government over whether some changes could be made. The biggest concern was whether the windows could be taken out, despite the fact that they were only added in 1937, the original structure having only skylights. This argument prevented any work from being done until 1987, when an agreement was finally reached. The building opened in 1989, with the Ciminelli Construction Company occupying the second floor space. In 1991, the Cyclorama Building was recognized as the historical building of the year.
The Cyclorama Building has been a symbol of great Buffalo architecture for over a hundred years. It began as an attraction for thousands of visitors each day, and later went through many different uses, usually more mundane and uninteresting than the cultural phenomenon that was the cyclorama. The building has been through struggles and tribulations, has seen years when its once impressive circular structure was crumbling, and inside there were only insects and mice. However, at the end of all these trials, the Cyclorama Building came out whole, keeping its historic structure but adding new, modern technology to make it beautiful and purposeful again.
The City of Buffalo has it's own struggles it must get past, but as a community, it can learn a lot from the Cyclorama Building, and hope that it too can end up renewed, repaired and still in touch with its history.
Special thanks to Mike Schalk for photo research assistance
Color photo and page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2002.
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