Cyclorama of Birmingham History
The Cyclorama of Birmingham History is a large, nearly-completed freestanding painting on the surface of a plastered structure, 8-feet-tall, with two flat walls joined by semi-circular end pieces. It was commissioned in 1980 by Gary Smith of the Alabama Historical Foundation and painted by Eleanor Bridges over the next two years. It had been intended for display in 1981, but Bridges refused to work with a deadline, and it took some time to master the peculiarities of the substrate.
The work was originally conceived as a mural for the lobby of the Brown-Marx Building, but because the interior walls were clad in pink marble, Bridges proposed the idea of a constructed installation. It was dubbed a "cyclorama" despite not surrounding the viewer. Free to choose the theme of the piece herself, Bridges decided to portray the history of Birmingham through scores of vignettes and portraits, loosely arranged into larger compositions for different historical periods.
Warner Floyd helped her to assemble source materials for the composition. The background of the painting features Shades Mountain, Red Mountain and Sand Mountain, encircling the other elements. The motto "We dream of the future, we learn from the past, but we live in the present" was to have been included, but was not part of the completed work.
As Bridges' health declined, the work was left incomplete. She died in 1987. The cyclorama was displayed for a while in the lobby of the BellSouth Building, then placed in storage at the Lyric Theatre. With the opening of the Birmingham History Center at the Young & Vann Building in 2010, it was returned to public exhibition.
The cyclorama portrays Birmingham's history as a collage of specific vignettes and subjects, tied loosely together by historical period or theme. They are arranged somewhat chronologically, beginning with Native Americans and concluding with the role of science and research. A "page of history" is then pulled back, returning the viewer to the beginning point.
Specific depictions include:
- A Native American male mounted on a Chocolate palomino in front of a wooden fence. The presence of the fence reflects the early settlement of Jones Valley.
- A white rabbit and wild turkey are the first of many woodland creatures depicted to show the abundance of wildlife
- A long rifle and coonskin cap leaning on the fence are a nod to the presence of Davy Crockett in Jones Valley.
- John T. Milner surveying the route for the South & North Alabama Railroad
- The background of the painting includes Red Mountain, Sand Mountain and Shades Mountain
- Native plants are shown throughout the painting.
- "Baby Vulcan", the artist's invention, symbolizing the birth of the iron industry in the Birmingham District. He wears his apron and has his hammer at hand.
- Scenes of coal and ore mining, including incomplete pencil sketches.
- Among the early furnaces shown are the Sloss Furnaces and Alice Furnace.
- Birmingham's 1873 cholera epidemic is illustrated with a doctor, possibly Mortimer Jordan Jr, calling on a sick boy with the assistance of a woman, probably Louise Wooster, a famed madam noted for her selfless attentions to the sick during the epidemic. A pet dog and cat stay nearby.
- The Calico Ball is depicted in antebellum style, with a hoop-skirted belle and man in top-hat and tails.
- An obelisk, similar to the Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument from Capitol Park.
- The Liberty Bell, tolling
- A group of prominent church buildings, including Temple Emanu-El, 16th Street Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church of the Advent, First Baptist Church, St Paul's Cathedral, and 1st Presbyterian Church
- A figure, intended to be Brother Bryan, is penciled in over the grouping of churches.
- A grouping of military figures, including a sailor (possibly Kelly Ingram), an aviator (possibly James Meissner), an army general (possibly Dwight Eisenhower), and a World War I doughboy.
- A Boy Scout offers a sword to a flag-draped figure of Liberty.
- The Relay House hotel and passenger depot.
- A grouping of notable old houses, including the George Massey residence (where Bridges grew up), the Bradford House, the William Rushton residence, and the James Donnelly residence.
- The outline of Arlington, with Confederate battle flags and cannon out front, is superimposed over the grouping.
- The Terrace Court apartments, developed by Bridges' father.
- A piece of pipe, possibly representing Birmingham's cast-iron pipe industry (U. S. Pipe, McWane Inc. and ACIPCO), with a view of a DART bus on 20th Street North (Birmingham Green) inside, as if looking through a telescope.
- The Birmingham Terminal Station and its Magic City sign.
- The Southern Railway's "Birmingham Special", the first passenger train to give direct service to Birmingham from New York (Mrs Bridges recalled that before the Special, parents who sent girls to New England for finishing school would have to hire a chaperone in Atlanta to make sure the girls weren't left alone when changing trains). An early critic encouraged Bridges to depict the train accurately. The final version is shown being pulled by Southern Railway Engine No. 4501, now at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga.
- The Brown-Marx Building (as it was first constructed)
- A steel erector working on the frame of a high-rise building
- A worker, in blue coveralls and yellow hard hat, sitting astride a globe
- A series of enmeshed gears symbolizing mechanical production
- Ensley Works, the most productive steel-producing plant of the early 20th century, called the "organ pipes" for the resemblance of the scores of tall stacks to a pipe organ.
- A vault door, symbolizing the banking industry, perhaps specifically depicting the vault at the Birmingham Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
- A ticker-tape, suggesting the devastating stock market crash of October 1929
- A ladle car pouring molten steel into ingot molds, probably a scene from the Ensley Works
- The Vulcan statue, cast in 1904 and erected on Red Mountain in 1939.
- Tapping slag at Sloss Furnaces. A slag car is shown in profile below the scene.
- The Alabama Power Building with Elektra statue on its roof.
- A skyline of Birmingham, as seen from Red Mountain
- A grouping of artistic subjects including a ballerina (specifically Gage Bush), a violin, harp and grand piano, and an entrance to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, an author at his writing desk, and masks of tragedy and comedy, symbolizing the dramatic arts, all crowned by the Birmingham Museum of Art
- Munger Hall at Birmingham-Southern College
- A modern medical setting with operating room lights and computerized equipment
- A caduceus, symbolizing medical practice
- Jefferson Tower of UAB Hospital
- A view from the end zone of Legion Field with a profile of Bear Bryant and a "V" with laurels and a football
- A Beisa oryx and juvenile elephant, residents of the Birmingham Zoo (the elephant possibly also representing the Big Al mascot of the Alabama Crimson Tide)
- laboratory equipment, depictions of atoms and molecules, a microscope and microscopic views and the equation "E=MC2"
- Southern Research Institute
- Samford University Library
- "At 80, painter begins cyclorama" (January 1980) Birmingham Post-Herald
- Bell, Elma (1982) "'Almost as old as the city,' she plans to paint its history." Birmingham News
- Whiting, Marvin Yeomans (n. d.) "Script for Eleanor Bridges Mural". typescript. Birmingham History Center