It’s only when you see the apartment building from above that you notice there’s something different about it.
It’s perfectly circular.
The others in Little Collins Street are square or rectangular, as buildings tend to be, but this one is distinctly round.
Building a perfectly round apartment building doesn’t make any sense.
How can you hang a painting on a curved wall?
Well you can, and they did. A massive one in fact: 15 metres high and 120 metres long, stretching the entire circumference of the building.
And people came in their droves to see it.
This building was never meant to be a place where people lived, it was meant to be a place where people were amazed and astounded.
It was a Cyclorama.
Okay, but what is a Cyclorama?
In the days before cinema, “going to the pictures” literally meant going to see an actual picture.
Sure, going to see a painting can be fun, but what if you really wanted to take the experience to the next level and fully immerse yourself in the artist’s work?
That’s when you’d go to the Cyclorama.
Cycloramas have been around for centuries but, in Australia and the United States at least, they enjoyed a bit of a golden period during the last decade of the 19th century.
Effectively, the Cyclorama was a huge circular building in which massive, 360 degree paintings were hung.
The paintings were usually of a major historical event — the Battle of Waterloo for example — and they were as realistic as the artist could achieve.
The idea was to let the viewer feel like they were actually at the Battle of Waterloo without having to go to the trouble of travelling to Belgium and being shot at by a Frenchman.
Rocks, dirt, trees, and props were often placed around the base of the painting in the way a stage might be decorated for a play.
Historian Mimi Colligan, author of Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand, likened going to the Cyclorama to going to modern day IMAX cinemas.
“People loved the immersive quality of the Cycloramas, because they were colourful, they were illusionistic so you felt you were there,” she said.
They also fulfilled a need for a society searching for more sophisticated forms of entertainment.
“This is part of that 19th century expansion of literacy by the industrial revolution. People were interested and informed,” Dr Colligan said.
“Instead of going to the Tivoli for the girlie shows, you went to the Cyclorama.”
How did they come to Melbourne?
Chicago businessmen Howard H. Gross and Isaac Newton Reed had established a successful Cyclorama company in their home city, launching in the early 1880s with a painting of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
After visiting Sydney for the city’s 1888 International Exhibition, Gross and Reed decided to expand their business to Australia.
They set up Cyclorama exhibitions that rotated between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, starting with the Battle of Gettysburg in Sydney and the Battle of Waterloo in Melbourne.
The works were monumental undertakings, requiring a team of artists to painstakingly recreate an event at which none of them was present.
To achieve as close to reality as possible, huge panoramic photographs were taken and sketches made at locations, such as the Gettysburg battlefield, and dozens of people who were actually there were interviewed.
This, sprinkled with a likely significant amount of artistic license, formed the basis for the paintings.
Individual artists had particular responsibilities: some worked solely on the landscape, some did the figures, some just did horses.
Once the painting was finished, the next and perhaps just as difficult step was to roll the thing up: not easy when you’re talking about something 100 metres long and 15 metres high.
That process involved fixing a roller to one end of the work, and slowly rolling it up over the course of six days.
Blockbusters before cinema even existed
The promoters of the Cyclorama weren’t to know, but there was to be just a narrow 10-year window of success for the art, before moving pictures came along and blew the whole thing out of the water.
For that brief period, these paintings were blockbusters, decades before that word was even used in an entertainment sense.
The Australasian newspaper, in the customary florid prose of the day, described the experience of viewing the Gettysburg painting more enticingly than any advertisement could.
“A young lady who goes to the exhibition regularly once a week, plants herself in front of the ghastly details of the hospital scene, and contemplates them steadfastly until she faints,” the newspaper reported.
You can’t buy advertising like that.
The Battle of Waterloo Cyclorama even boasted a “real life” veteran of the battle.
Jeremiah Brown, said by promoters to be close to 100 years old, would tell stories and “fight his battle o’er again” for the paying customers.
“His memory is marvellous and he bears grand testimony to the general correctness of the details of the painting,” reported the Ovens and Murray Advertiser.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah Brown was later shown to be a fraud and was, in fact, four years old at the time of the Battle of Waterloo.
“That’s Hollywood for you before Hollywood had been invented,” Dr Colligan said.
Cinematograph killed the Cyclorama star
The Cyclorama paintings were extraordinary in their depth and detail, but they had one fatal flaw: they didn’t move.
When cinemas, showing moving pictures, began operating in Australia — first in Sydney, then in Melbourne in 1896 — the days of the Cyclorama were numbered.
Moving pictures had an unfair advantage over the massive Cyclorama paintings: they were real.
“The impression is so perfect that you might on the slightest provocation stretch out your hand to check the pedestrian who is within an ace of being run down by a bus,” reported the Ovens and Murray Advertiser.
The Cyclorama promoters were fighting an unwinnable battle against technology.
“They were losing money and instead of charging two shillings or five shillings, they were charging one shilling,” Dr Colligan said.
Not only were the cinemas showing actual people and events, they could rotate their films far more often than the Cyclorama promoters could rotate their enormous, cumbersome works.
The two Cycloramas in Melbourne persisted for just a few years into the 1900s before closing for good.
The Fitzroy Cyclorama building stood for another 20 years, and was used as an athletics and boxing pavilion before it was demolished.
A new life for the Cyclorama
The Cyclorama in Little Collins Street was used as a bicycle school before the building later became part of Georges Department Store.
In 1995 the Little Collins Street Cyclorama underwent a major renovation to become luxury apartments,
Unintentionally, or by design, the iron rings incorporated into the building’s impressive skylight are reminders of its past life as a Cyclorama.
There are stronger clues if you venture into the building’s underground car park, with its distinctly curved walls.
It takes a little bit of imagination to picture the space with a floor to ceiling painting of the Siege of Paris or some other event, but you can manage it if you try hard enough.
Source: Thanks msn.com