Meet a South End Landmark

The cluster of buildings that make up the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) was originally built as elegant luxury apartments, organ manufactories, and grand exhibition halls. The buildings themselves vary in style, from French Academic to Victorian commercial, and from vernacular domestic to “cycloramic.” The Cyclorama is the signature BCA building. It is architecturally unique, a Victorian social document, and a reflection of the tastes and lifestyle of an era.

It was built in 1884 by Charles F. Willoughby, a wealthy Chicago merchant, for the express purpose of housing the “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama, a painting method popular in the 19th century. It is a pictorial representation, in perspective, of a landscape or event on the inner wall of a cylindrical room viewed from the center. The space between the audience and the picture contains real objects that gradually blend into the picture itself, the drama of the spectacle heightened by intricate lighting effects.

The “Battle of Gettysburg” was only the second cyclorama ever exhibited in Boston, five years after French artist Henri Philippoteaux’s cycloramic painting of the “Siege of Paris.” Henri’s son, Paul, executed the “Battle of Gettysburg” in two years and the final product was an impressive 400 feet in circumference and 50 feet high. The exhibit opened on December 22, 1884, and was a great success for several years. It eventually closed and the painting was lost for 20 years, found by chance in a wooden box on a vacant lot in Roxbury, only slightly damaged. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 1924 and resides at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

The Cyclorama building has hosted a number of acts over the years. Austin and Stone’s Museum presented “A Living Man with Two Heads,’ the New England Roller Polo held its championship games there, and Dr. Landis gave free illustrated lectures on the subject of “Single Life Injures the Vital Organs and the Brain. Silo Singing.” A cyclorama of the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea briefly returned to the building in 1895 but, for the next few years, it was a roller skate rink with a full military band, a work-out spot for heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, a bicycle arena, and a garage where Albert Champion set up shop. Champion went on to invent the A.C. spark plug and make millions in automobile accessories manufacturing.

The Commercial Flower Exchange bought the Cyclorama from the Isabella Stewart Gardner estate in 1922 and changed the facade to its present look, putting the skylight into the dome without destroying the interior. In 1969 the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) named it as part of the BCA. Today, the Cyclorama is a popular venue for weddings, corporate events, trade shows, galas, seminars, and more, hosting anywhere between 100 and 1,000 guests. 

Source: Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), Boston Center for the Arts