The Cyclorama was once located at 131 Front St W (opposite University Ave on the south side) in the Entertainment District of downtown Toronto. Today the site is home to the 20-storey office tower, Citigroup Place.
What is a Cyclorama?
Think of it as an 1800s version of virtual reality. A cyclorama features panoramic paintings inside a cylindrical space that gives spectators a 360-degree view of a scene. The art exhibition, also described as an infinity wall, provides the viewer with the optical illusion of unlimited space.
Artists would research and visit historic sites around the world. They would then return home and paint huge panoramic images for cyclorama exhibitions, usually historical moments or battles.
In 1887, the City’s latest form of entertainment opened to the public. Operated by the Toronto Cyclorama Company, the 16-sided brick structure was designed by the architectural firm Kennedy & Holland.
Canvas measuring 15 m or 50 ft in height and 122 m or 400 ft in length was suspended around the interior of the circular building. In the centre, spectators would walk around an elevated platform about 9 m or 30 ft from the canvas to take in the sites. Tours, or what was known then as lectures, would start on the hour.
During the day, skylights in the roof illuminated the interior, while electric lights brought a different look and feel to the attraction at night.
The Cyclorama was a great addition to the already busy area. It was to the west of the Walker House, a popular hotel. Adjacent to a zoo once on the northeast corner of Front St W and York St, where the Fairmont Royal York Hotel stands today. And, it was to the north of the old Union Station.
The Battle of Sedan
The first exhibit at the Cyclorama was the Battle of Sedan which occurred during the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war. Spectators were transported to a tragic and bloody, realistic war scene over miles of fields and valleys intersecting with rivers and towns. The two artists who painted the Cyclorama took part in the actual battles and then spent two years recreating it on canvas in perfect detail. To create a more naturalistic experience, real turf and earth on the ground and fragments of shattered roofs were added. Visitors couldn’t tell where props and painted scenery merged.
During its first four days, it attracted 10,000 spectators, and tickets ranged between 25¢ to 50¢ for adults and 15¢ for children. Moving pictures had not yet arrived in Toronto, so Torontonians were entertained by live theatre and the Cyclorama.
Battles of a Different Kind
Around 1890, the Cyclorama’s second exhibit was the Battle of Gettysburg – another powerfully depicted war scene.
On Saturday mornings, kids headed to the Cyclorama for 5¢ bargain days and the zoo. School children also went to the Cyclorama for class trips.
But art wasn’t paying the bills, and the Cyclorama was experiencing financial issues. The City was owed $1,000 in rent and over $800 in taxes. So in 1892, the canvas for the current exhibition was auctioned off.
In 1893, the Cyclorama reopened with Jerusalem, the Day of the Crucifixion exhibit. By 1900, the short-lived attraction had permanently closed. It was perhaps a victim of Toronto’s newest attraction, moving-picture shows. The City’s first movie theatre opened in 1896.
Petrie’s Machinery Showroom
After sitting vacant for a few years, in 1903, HW Petrie Limited, a machinery company that occupied the building next to Cyclorama, took over the former art space. They used the ample, well-lit space as a permanent exhibit for their new machinery, and their old premises to the west for second-hand equipment.
Petrie’s Parking Place
In 1928, the downtown landmark was converted to a spiral parking garage. Its roof and cupola were removed and the cost to make the updates was approximately $80,000. The land remained the property of the City and was leased for $4,000 to $5,000 per year. Dubbed the “newest and most modern parking and garage service,” 350 parking spaces over ten covered and two open levels were available. It was fireproof, equipped for service, had gas pumps, was steps from today’s Union Station and accessible from Front St W or Station St.
From 1948 to the early 1960s, while it remained a parking garage, it was also home to Elgin Motors. The showroom was called “Fordorama.” When the Ford dealership left the structure, it became Avis Rent-A-Car parking garage.
In 1973, the long since gone Cyclorama building and neighbouring Walker House received heritage status from the City.
Razing of the Cyclorama Building
In 1976, even though the Cyclorama was historically significant, the then parking garage and the Walker House were torn down. At the time, the owner of the buildings was losing money on the properties, and there were no funds to keep them operating.
The Site Today
In 1986, the University Place tower was constructed on the southwest corner of Front St W and York St, the former Walker House and Cyclorama site. The 20-storey building known today as Citygroup Place is home to offices and restaurants.
Did You Know?
- Architects Kennedy & Holland also designed the Lake View Hotel, or what we know today as the Winchester Hotel.
- Another Toronto Front St gem that was lost to a parking lot was the former Board of Trade Building.
- Station St resides where Toronto’s old Union Station once was.
- A surviving “Battle of Gettysburg” cylorama is on display at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
- In Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec, the Cyclorama of Jerusalem has been on display since 1895.
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 14, 1887, pg 10
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jul 18, 1889, pg 3
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Feb 17, 1892, pg 8
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Jul 4, 1893, pg 2
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Sep 10, 1903, pg 7
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 26, 1927, pg 7
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Aug 7, 1975, pg B1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 20, 1976, pg 39
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Toronto Public Library
- Vintage Map: Atlas of the City of Toronto 1890 by Chas E Goad from the Toronto Public Library