In the late 1960s, the Boston Redevelopment Authority purchased a 4-acre parcel of historic land in Boston’s South End to create an art center, and designated the BCA as its developer. The land included the Cyclorama, the BCA’s most renowned space, which had been built in 1884 to house a cycloramic painting of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The BCA became an affordable space for working artists, and as well as a fringe theater venue. The BCA Gallery, originally formed to show work by BCA studio artists, became the Mills Gallery. The BCA Plaza Theatres were joined, in 2004, by the two new theaters at the Calderwood Pavilion.
Each year, more than 200,000 people visit the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA). Many of our visitors wish to learn more about the history of the buildings located here, especially the unique Cyclorama. With these visitors in mind, the BCA and the South End Historical Society produced the first published history of the BCA’s buildings. This history has continued as a living document. Any additional information or photographs from the past are genuinely appreciated. The BCA and the South End Historical Society invite you to enrich our records and to enjoy your visit to the BCA.
Located in Boston’s South End, the largest landmark district in the United States covering more than 500 acres, the BCA, is dedicated to incubating and showcasing the performing and visual arts of our time. Occupying an historic city block on a four-acre parcel of land bordered by Tremont Street, Clarendon Street, Warren Avenue and Berkeley Street, the BCA is a resource to Greater Boston providing a creative “home” for artists, a welcoming arts destination for audiences, and an art connection for city youth and communities.
This centerpiece of the BCA, The Cyclorama, was built on land that originally belonged to the Boston Water Power Company. The Power Company operated mills at a dam (now Beacon Street) that depended on tidal water.
The first building at the site was the Moody and Sankey Tabernacle. It opened to the public on January 25, 1877. Dwight L. Moody was the congregation’s preacher, Ira Sankey the featured soloist. Dr. Eben Tourjee, founder of the New England Conservatory, directed the congregation’s chorus.
Moody was a famous revival preacher who conducted meetings throughout the U.S. and England. He later founded the Northfield Seminar for girls, the Mt. Herman School for boys and the Moody Bible Institute.
Six or seven years later, with the Tabernacle demolished, Charles F. Willoughby, a Chicago businessman, commissioned the architectural firm of Cummings and Sears to build the Cyclorama. Charles Amos Cummings designed the New Old South Church and the chapel at Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Williard T. Sears was the architect of the renowned private residence of Mrs. Jack Gardner, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum located on the Fenway in Boston.
The permit for the building was filed on April 9, 1884 with estimated construction costs of $50,000. The building opened to the public on December 22, 1884.
Cycloramas were a popular form of entertainment during the later nineteenth century. Most major cities in both Europe and North America had at least one. Built to house enormous, life size, panoramic murals, they frequently depicted battle scenes, evoking a sense of national pride while presenting graphic depictions of many historical events. The original painting for this Cyclorama depicted “The Battle of Gettysburg,” a turning point in the Civil War when the Union defeated the Confederacy and established the North’s ascendancy in the armed struggle. Never built for actual battle, the façade of the Cyclorama, with its fortress-like display of towers and battlements, was designed to instill a war-ready feeling to best provide a home for this epic battle scene.
Parisian artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, the leading panoramic muralist of the time, painted “The Battle of Gettysburg” in 1884. This massive canvas measured 50’ x 400’ and weighed 2.9 tons. Gifted in depicting a detailed realism, Philippoteaux researched and studied his subjects before painting. For this mural he visited Gettysburg, taking numerous photographs and talking to many of the soldiers who fought in the battle.
Viewers entered the Cyclorama through a long narrow hallway, ascended a circular, underground stairway, and found themselves in the midst of the battlefield. A patron of the day wrote that:
“[one] suddenly finds himself upon a high hill, with a stretch of 40 miles of country all around him and everywhere within the range of vision, on the hills, in the valleys, in the woods, on the open fields, in ditches and behind stone walls, and in shot-shattered shanties he beholds the soldiers of the blue and gray engaged in an awful struggle for supremacy.”
(Sunday Herald, December 21, 1884)
Railings kept viewers from getting too close. Objects such as artillery, terrain and replicas of soldiers were placed between the painting and the viewer to blur the distinction between art and reality. A backlit painted canvas sky enriched this sense of immediacy and enhanced the illusion of a battlefield. Critics exclaimed the power of the experience, with one commenting that:
“Whoever expects to see a picture merely – even a great battlepiece – must be taken by surprise. A popular painting is one that is adapted to the comprehension of the great masses of people who are uneducated in art; one has but to hear and see the children pointing out the objects and commenting on them as in real life, to feel it proved that this is a popular work in the highest sense.”
(The Watchman, February 19, 1885)
Based on the popularity of this Cyclorama, a second one was built just two blocks down Tremont Street at the site of what is now the Animal Rescue League. This competing venue presented a panoramic painting of “The Battle of Bunker Hill.”
By 1889, interest in Philippoteaux’s “The Battle of Gettysburg” waned. A new painting was installed in the Cyclorama: “Custer’s Last Stand.” However, as popular interest in cycloramas continued to decline, these paintings were removed from the building. Between 1911 and 1913 Philippoteaux’s work traveled from New Jersey and New York to Maryland and Washington, D.C. “The Battle of Gettysburg” was stored for many years on the site of the Boston Ballet. In 1942, the United States Park Service acquired the painting and in 1962, the painting was installed in a new building at the Gettysburg National Military Park where it can be seen today.
In 1890, John Gardner, father-in-law of Isabella Stewart Gardner, purchased the Cyclorama and launched a series of new uses for the building. In the early 1890s, the Cyclorama was home to a bazaar that included a carousel, roller-skating and bicycle riding. Later came a costume carnival and roller polo championships.
In the mid-1890s, the venue hosted a wide variety of entertainments such horseback riding and a gun drill show. In April 1894, as part of a series of boxing events, All Star Boxing Match was the host to a bout with John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight boxing champion and the last of the bare-fisted sluggers.
At the turn of the century, the Cyclorama was transformed into an industrial space. In 1899, New England Electric Vehicle Company moved in with plans to manufacture automobiles. Records suggest that fraudulent loans and low productivity forced the company to vacate the premises by 1901. Three tenants of this era were the Tremont Garage (1904-1922), the Buick Automobile Agency (1905-1907) and the Albert Champion Co. (1906-1907). Albert Champion invented the AC spark plug here in 1907. Subsequent tenants included a manufacturer of auto tops, a truck manufacturer and an auto repair shop.
In 1923, the Cyclorama took on yet another life as home to the Boston Flower Exchange. The Exchange added the present entrance and altered the dome by adding the skylight. Second only to the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., this extraordinary dome skylight (60’ high with a diameter of 127’) was largest dome in the country for its time. The market operated from 6 a.m. to noon, accommodating 250 buyers and more than 100 growers. During the holiday season, these numbers more than doubled. Now located on Albany Street, the Exchange is one of the nation’s largest sellers of carnations and roses and is owned and operated by local flower growers.
In 1970, with much community support, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) designated the Cyclorama and the surrounding buildings as an arts center and named the BCA its developer. Among the highlights of the past three decades are Sarah Caldwell’s performance of “Louise” (1970), the exhibition of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” (1980), and “Massachusarts,” an exhibition of over 100 artists from across the Commonwealth (1990). Installed for the Judy Chicago work, the grid, which now hangs under the skylight, is the work of Buckminster Fuller, renowned for his extraordinary brilliance in mathematics and art. Recent art projects in the Cyclorama have been the annual December 1st site specific public art installation in recognition of World A.I.D.S Day vigil lead by Medicine Wheel Productions with Art Director Michael Dowling, and the world renowned Bread and Puppet Theatre.
The surrounding buildings house the best of Boston’s artist communities. Filmmakers, dancers, painters, potters, and theater producers all find subsidized studio space in the TEB Building. At street level is the BCA’s Mills Gallery, Boston’s premiere contemporary gallery. Below the Cyclorama, in the area once just the service basement, the BCA provides space for the Community Music Center of Boston, the Boston Ballet Costume Shop, and two well-equipped theaters. The BCA Plaza Theatres (the 90 seat Black Box, and the 142-seat Plaza Theatre), recently awarded “Best Small Theatre” by the Weekly Dig, are home to the critically lauded Resident Theatre Companies.
Today, in addition to art installations and performances, the Cyclorama is a vibrant, multi-use venue available year round for private and public events. It is considered to be the “best alternative” space for events with “infinite potential” (Improper Bostonian). Each year the Cyclorama is the venue of choice for private gatherings, launch parties, and fundraisers. Millions of dollars are raised each year for Boston’s charities. By being available for such a wide array of uses and experiences, the BCA continues to fulfill its mission and make history in the Cyclorama.