Advertisement for Chicago Fire Cyclorama; from Chicago Daily Tribune, September 17, 1893
Cycloramas have long been a popular attraction. By standing in the middle of a circular building or room on whose interior walls are one continuous canvas or a series of canvases, spectators simulate the experience of being in a particular place at a significant moment. Other Chicago cycloramas re-created the battles of Gettysburg and Shiloh, the confrontation of the Monitor and the Merrimac, the city of Jerusalem and the Crucifixion, and the Siege of Paris, and there were at least two fire cycloramas. As this advertisement indicates, cycloramas often included a lecture on the presentation.
This particular extravaganza was mounted in a building constructed on the west side of Michigan Avenue between Monroe and Madison in 1892, no doubt to take advantage of the anticipated increase in tourism spurred by the Columbian Exposition the following year, as well as continuing popular interest in the epic fire. It was open Monday through Saturday from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, and on Sundays from 2 to 10. The entrance fee was 50 cents (the same price as a ticket of admission to the entire main grounds of the Exposition, and of a single ride on the Ferris Wheel on the Midway), 25 cents for children.
In a pamphlet that accompanied the exhibit, which included a fire memoir by the prominent Chicago clergyman David Swing, promoters Isaac N. Reed and Howard H. Gross billed themselves as "the foremost men in the world for the production of this class of work." Text on the tickets marveled, “The Chicago Fire swept over an area of 25 acres every 10 minutes. It destroyed the homes of 100 people every minute. It was the most terrible conflagration in the history of the world. Nearly 3,000 acres of buildings reduced to ruins in 18 hours. Over Two Hundred Millions of Property Destroyed.” The figures Reed and Gross cited relating to the scale of the fire were almost eclipsed by those pertaining to the fire cyclorama itself. The five interconnected scenes, each approximately fifty feet high and eighty feet wide, stretched over nearly 20,000 square feet of wall space. An international team of ten artists spent twenty man-years of labor applying two tons of oil paint to six tons of canvas, at what was said to be a total cost of $250,000.
The point of view of the Chicago Fire Cyclorama, the pamphlet explained, is "an elevated position on the site of old Fort Dearborn--the cradle and birth-place of Chicago--and immediately south of the Rush Street Bridge," at the northern edge of the South Division. "When it was determined to produce the great Cyclorama of Chicago," the promoters added, "the artists realized that there would be at least three things that the people visiting it would like to see, viz: the ruins of Chicago, the Fire of Chicago, and some of the unburnt portion of the old city, showing the style of architecture and familiar street scenes of the ante-fire days." Photographs of the cyclorama are so realistic that it is hard to tell at first glance that they are not of the event itself. There are no photographs of the actual Chicago fire.
The Chicago Fire Cyclorama's producers cited testimonials from ministers like Swing (“It is true and really wonderful”) and Reformed Episcopal Bishop Samuel Fallows (“I am perfectly astonished at the effect”), as well as real estate entrepreneur William D. Kerfoot (“The thrilling scenes therein depicted are beyond description”).
The Rand McNally Company's 1898 Bird's-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago states that the reported attendance at the Cyclorama Building and its changing exhibits was 144,000 visitors a year, though Rand-McNally did not provide figures for particular years. After the fire cyclorama was taken down, and the canvas was put in storage in a building on South Indiana Avenue. It was sold in 1913 to a junk dealer for two dollars.
Looking North from East Adams Street; from Rand-McNally, Bird's-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago, 1898
The roof of the round Cyclorama Building (indicated by the number 8) is visible in this view of the downtown. This is one of over two dozen such views in this extraordinary guidebook.
Chicago Fire Cyclorama, Scene the Third (ichi-63838)
This photograph of the third of the five scenes of the fire on the wall of the Cyclorama Building appeared in the pamphlet that accompanied the Chicago Fire Cyclorama. The point of view, the pamphlet explains, is “an elevated position on the site of old Fort Dearborn—the cradle and birth-place of Chicago—and immediately south of the Rush Street Bridge,” at the northern edge of the South Division. The caption for this scene reads, “Panic at Rush Street Bridge. Burning of the North Division. Looking north up Rush Street.”