A Battle Scene's Full Circle

Maura Duffy walks by the first of the Gettysburg cyclorama's 14 panels to be hung in the battle site's new facility, set to open next year.
Maura Duffy walks by the first of the Gettysburg cyclorama's 14 panels to be hung in the battle site's new facility, set to open next year. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

GETTYSBURG, Pa. "Everybody ready?" asks the chief art conservator, David L. Olin.

He pauses for a second, then starts the hoist. With the drone of machinery, a segment of the legendary Gettysburg cyclorama, four stories tall, begins to rise up the wall and back to life.

There, in a corner of the painting, is the famous black dog howling eternally over the body of a slain soldier. Nearby, two men with a stretcher again carry a wounded comrade, whose right arm dangles over the side. In the center, horsemen gallop in the perpetual shadow of battle smoke.

As the canvas clears the floor, it falls into place with a soft whoosh. Applause breaks out among the art conservators and bystanders. There are tears, hugs, whoops and handshakes.

"It's up," says senior conservator Debra Selden of this Gilded Age wonder, an Imax of its time.

At last.

The depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg's climactic moment has begun the final stages of its return. The circular oil painting survived 124 years of use and abuse. It has been restored in an $11.2 million, four-year conservation program and will be the showpiece of a new $7.5 million building at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Last week, a Great Falls-based firm, Olin Conservation Inc., assisted by a team of Polish cyclorama experts, raised the first of 14 sections of the painting inside the huge new circular structure that will house it.

A gang of conservators -- shoeless to avoid damaging the canvas -- spent all day Wednesday preparing and maneuvering the 26-foot-wide, 950-pound section into place.

At one point, it had to be flipped from its face-down position with a big aluminum roller. It was then hauled up a kind of launching ramp and clamped into the curved steel and oak bracket, or cornice, from which it would hang. Bracket and painting were hoisted to the ceiling with cables and chains.

The project is the work of a partnership between the National Park Service, which oversees the battlefield, and a private, nonprofit fundraising organization called the Gettysburg Foundation. The aim is to build a modern museum and visitor complex, restore and re-house the cyclorama, tear down the old visitor buildings nearby and return that landscape to its Civil War-era appearance.

The new $103 million, barn-red visitor complex, designed to suggest a Pennsylvania farm, is scheduled to open next spring, project officials said.

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