Long before movies and screens, Chicago went nuts for something called cycloramas

If you neglected to celebrate or commemorate the recent hoopla surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, I am here to steer you to one element worth your time.

It is a 40-feet-long painting created as a guide for what was once a larger Chicago Fire Cyclorama painting, which was displayed in Chicago in 1892-93 in a round building constructed for visitors to have an immersive experience. It is a part of the Chicago History Museum’s extensive and permanent Great Fire exhibition.

Never heard of a cycloramas? Understandable, since they have all but vanished from memory. There are still a few around though, reminders that in their time cycloramas were an entertainment as popular as movies would become, if for some they offered experiences as disconcerting as bad dreams.

The Chicago History Museum cyclorama is a small stunner and is accompanied by a lively and informative essay by Carl Smith, a Northwestern University professor emeritus and author of many books about our history. Especially notable is his most recent, 2020′s “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City” (Atlantic Monthly Press), the best book written about the fire. I say that even though my father, Herman, wrote with his newspaperman friend Robert Cromie a very good “The Great Fire, Chicago 1871,″ some 50 years ago.

In his essay, Smith notes that what you are seeing on the Chicago History Museum site is a “preliminary version of one 10 times as big” and goes on to describe the finished work: “The scale of this colossal artwork, its 360-degree vista with multiple vanishing points, and its meticulous attention to detail, combined with a seamless visual transition between visitors and the painting, were all intended to simulate the experience of being present at the actual fire. A successful cyclorama such as this one — much like a 3D film or a set of virtual reality goggles — provided an exciting and even unnerving visual and psychological experience.”

When the Chicago Fire Cyclorama opened in April 1892, a Tribune reporter wrote, “Among the 500 or more guests present (at the opening reception) were many of the oldest and best known citizens of Chicago, most of whom witnessed the fire. They commended the accuracy with which landmarks, once familiar to them, are portrayed, and all were able to pronounce it an artistic success.”

At the end of his essay, Smith offers special thanks to Gene Meier.”

He is good and right to do so. Meier is a historian who lives in the Western suburbs and there are few people on the planet as knowledgeable about cycloramas.

A few years ago, he enlightened me, telling me that in the 1880s and 1890s panoramas were “the biggest paintings in the world,” measuring some 20,000 square feet. They were displayed inside huge rotundas — 16-sided polygons — and these displays were also called cycloramas.

They were made of a standard size so that they could be easily exchanged, from city to city and from country to country. Audiences, paying something like 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They would have to climb two sets of winding stairs to stand on a platform 30 feet above the ground in the center of these massive paintings. Narrators were there to tell the story. Many veterans of wars, who fought as teenagers, would bring their families to relive the battles being depicted, battles they knew firsthand.

Meier told me that Chicago became a center of panorama activity in America due in large part to Howard H. Gross, who made “Battle of Gettysburg” and “Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion” here; Chicagoan William Wehner, who worked in a studio in downtown Milwaukee and imported artists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland; and A.T. Andreas, publisher of the three volume “History of Chicago,” who hired painter Theophile Poilpot to produce “Battle of Shiloh” for Chicago and other works.

The original “Gettysburg,” made in Belgium by Paul Philippoteaux, was installed in October 1883 at 700 S. Wabash Ave., and remained on display until the mid-1890s. It was so successful that it became one of the first companies traded on the Chicago Stock Exchange, founded in 1882.

“There are many stories, lots of intrigue, and romance surrounding it,” Meier told me. “By 1889 the popularity of rotunda panoramas were said to have run their course in America, but when Chicago won the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, panoramas here were revived with renewed vigor. Two rotundas were placed on the Midway Plaisance and one in ‘The Fair Behind the Fair’ area.”

It is always worthwhile to talk with Meier. His knowledge is vast, his enthusiasm palpable.

The city comes alive as he says, “In 1893 Chicago had six panorama companies and six panorama rotundas.” In describing what it was like for him to discover the diaries of one of Wehner’s artists, F.W. Heine, in a display case at the Milwaukee County Historical Society in 2003, he said, “The F.W. Heine diaries are as important to the history of 19th century rotunda panorama as the letters of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh are important to the history of Post-Impressionism.”

Most panoramas were long ago destroyed or cut into pieces, framed and sold as individual works. “Some panorama rotundas in Chicago and elsewhere were turned into boxing arenas, circus venues, convention centers,” says Meier, telling me some still exist in Atlanta; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.; Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec; and California.

Meier is creating a spreadsheet titled “Panorama for a Small City,” about 19th century rotunda panoramas.

In the process of writing this story of ancient attractions, I was introduced to a quite modern diversion. The Chicago 00 Project is a digital media partnership between the Chicago History Museum and filmmaker Geoffrey Alan Rhodes. It offers, as it explains at the site, a series of “multimedia experiences designed to showcase the museum’s film, photo, and sound archive and share Chicago’s stories in new and unique ways.” That comes in the form of captivating journeys to the Columbian Exposition, 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Century of Progress, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the SS Eastland disaster.

And the Chicago Fire too.