The Story of the Landmark Cyclorama Building

by Linda Fiscus
edited by Susan H. Poole

Everything has a history, whether it is a country, government, business or even family lineage. This history helps to shape people and things into what they are today or will be in the future. The Cyclorama Building, located on Franklin Street in Buffalo's Theater District, is one building that has a varied history. (The word "cyclorama" comes from the Greek word "cycl," meaning circle, and "orama," meaning viewing. (BF, 1985)). This building, which dates back to 1888 and contrary to popular belief was not used for bicycle races, definitely exudes a sense of the past from the first time you walk into its impressive atrium. As the saying goes, "if these walls could talk, what a story they would tell." This Buffalo landmark conjures up many images of a time gone by in the history of Buffalo.

A Virtual Tour of the Unique Cyclorama Building

In May 1887, in connection with the Buffalo Cyclorama Company, Henry Altman traveled to Europe to help promote an exhibit on canvas of the grandeur of Niagara Falls (BDC, 4). The famous French artist, Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, was commissioned to paint a view of the Falls on a 400 ft. long and 50 ft. wide canvas. The exhibit of this grandiose depiction took place in London (October 1888) and Paris (1889). The response was so great to these exhibits in Europe, that the Buffalo Cyclorama Company decided to bring the experience to those on American soil. So, on July 18, 1888, the ground breaking took place for the Cyclorama Building in Buffalo (BCA, 3).

At a meeting of the officers and board of trustees of the Buffalo Cyclorama Company, in August 1888, they discussed the first exhibit to be housed in the newly constructed building, "Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion." William Wehner, who was the owner of the Milwaukee Panorama Studio, as well as a trustee of the Buffalo Cyclorama Company, was instrumental in obtaining this magnificent piece of artwork for the opening of the building.

This was a major accomplishment not only for the Buffalo Cyclorama Company but the City of Buffalo as well. It was pivotal to have secured such a renowned painter to create the first exhibit to help the venture take flight. People began rapidly buying up stock in the new enterprise and shortly before its opening only a few shares remained. It was apparent that the Buffalo Cyclorama Company was on the road to success. Now all that was needed was for the building to be completed and the exhibit to arrive.

The exhibit arrived on Saturday, August 18, 1888. It measured 400 ft. long and 50 ft. high and was to be housed in the new building, which was 130 ft. in diameter and 92 ft. high (BCA, 3). On the day of its arrival, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser contained this excerpt from a Chicago Daily News reporter,

"It is a work of magnitude, of beauty, and of delicacy. Of the many cycloramas which, during the last five years, have been viewed by the Chicago public, there has been no other that approached this one in the particulars of sublimity and fineness of treatment. In no other work of its kind have we found so vast a multiplicity of detail; the demands upon the artists have been most extraordinary, involving, in addition to the archeological research and the most careful study of sacred and profane history. Here then, we have a reverential treatment of that sublime sacrifice, which for nineteen centuries has constituted the faith of civilization. The data was obtained in Jerusalem. Artists spent many months in the holy city preparing drawings and sketches, which were submitted to recognize authorities and thus was produced a cyclorama historically correct. The work as a whole, and in each of its detail, is simply marvelous (BCA, 3)."

This glowing review of the cyclorama was a tremendous boost for Buffalo and it showed that the city had a cultural side to its very industrial image.

On Saturday, September 8, 1888, the Cyclorama was opened with a private showing for reporters, artists, clergyman and other prominent citizens. The first guests were awed by the painstaking detail and overwhelming amount of work that went into the building and the artwork, which was quite an accomplishment since the building was erected in about two months time. F.C.M. Lautz, a reporter for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, was among one of the guests. He made this somewhat prophetic statement about the building, "It is not necessary to say that the building, so quickly raised, is thoroughly well-constructed and is likely to remain one of the permanent attractions of the city." (BCA, 3). He concluded his story by saying that, "in view of its genuine merits and the excellent auspices under which it is opened here in Buffalo, the Cyclorama can hardly fail to be successful." (BCA, 3).


What Buffalonians Did Before TV and Movies.

It was not long after its grand beginnings that some improvements were added to the newest hot spot in Buffalo. The crowds were especially large for the "Crucifixion" because of the lessons being expounded at St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, which was and still is adjacent to the Cyclorama. Seats were added to the upper plateau, much to the appreciation of the patrons. The Buffalo Cyclorama Company also decided to add an engine room to house electricity and heat, so people would even come on the dark and chilly days of a Buffalo winter.

The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser sang praises to the building and exhibit in the September 19, 1888, issue by saying, "The Cyclorama is one of the best drawing attractions ever exhibited in the city." (BCA, 3). One can only imagine that Wehner and the company's other trustees were shocked, but pleasantly so, that over a thousand visitors graced the building on a daily basis.

Religious beliefs and church community were at the center of the lives of many early Buffalonians. At September 6, 1888, article in the Catholic Union Times had nothing but praise for the accomplishments of the Cyclorama exhibit. Until this exhibit, many other religious renderings had been created but none captured the spirit and the essence of this pictorial representation. This reporter's description is yet another shining example of the miraculous feat the Buffalo Cyclorama Company has established.

"Buffalo's Cyclorama of Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion will be recognized not only as a superior work of art, but as the most faithful representation of sacred scenes of Golgotha and that which surrounded it. It revises the scene in all its solemn reality, without any attempt at emphasizing that which we today see without difficulty on Golgotha, but which could not be seen there while the great teacher of humanity surrendered his spirit on the cross."

The people involved in this venture were not only padding their wallets but they were also taking a place in history among the many cultural aspects of the City of Buffalo.

Many guests of the Cyclorama were impressed with the graceful stairway which led up to the platform surrounding the panorama. The impressive center column was a fine example of the strength of the building and its message. People felt compelled to reach the pinnacle of the staircase even though the wait was sometimes lengthy. It was especially gratifying to the creators, who labored long and hard, to see people take such instructive values, as well. The Buffalo Cyclorama Company had definitely created an attraction that the city could take universal pride in. A reporter for The Buffalo Express had these comments to make on the building and its exhibit. (TBE, 11).

·       The building is unique as it is imposing and looks as if it had been erected to stay.

·       There is no memoir process. All understand, look, observe well, and the lesson of Christ's precept and suffering is learned.

·       The first thing that impresses the visitor is the wonderfully weird atmospheric effect that pervades the entire canvas. The visitor upon reaching the platform, which is furnished and heated, sees such beautiful renditions that are awe inspiring.

·       In material success, the Cyclorama is a most meritorious addition to Buffalo's natural and artificial attractions.

After about a two year run, the Cyclorama Building displayed another panorama. The second one depicted „The Battle of Gettysburg“ by Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux. (BCE, 1). Like its predecessor, it enjoyed about a year or two year engagement. After that, for no known reason, the popularity of this form of entertainment began to dwindle. The two famous cycloramas can still be enjoyed by people today. The "Crucifixion" by Prof. Bruno Piglhein  is in the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec City and the cyclorama of Gettysburg can be found in a special building on Gettysburg's famous battleground, Pickett's Charge. (Company archives).