It was going to the pictures before going to the pictures. The Cyclorama, a 19th century building that hosted viewings of massive round paintings, were quite the phenomenon in their heyday.

People would attend the Cyclorama to view an unmoving, monolithic 360 degree painting that wrapped around the circumference of the building. Many of the paintings depicted historical events or happenings, with a number of artists enlisted to work on a certain section of the painting.

The Cyclorama craze came to Australian shores after two Chicagoans — Howard H. Gross and Isaac Newton Reed — brought their successful Cyclorama company down under after the 1888 International Exhibition. The pair set up exhibits in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, with the Battle of Gettysburg in Sydney and the Battle of Waterloo in Melbourne.

The huge pictures comprised panoramic photographs and drawings from the locations, with a number of people who were either historians or were there at the time. Once the painting was completed, it was then rolled up, a process that took approximately six days.

The Cyclorama phenomenon lasted for approximately ten years. When the cinema came to town in the late 1890s, it meant the massive circular pictures were on their last legs. The still pictures were no match for their moving counterparts, with cinemas able to rotate which film they would show far quicker than the Cycloramas could replace their exhibits. 

The two Cycloramas located in Melbourne closed in the early 1900s. The Fitzroy Cyclorama was repurposed as an athletics and boxing pavilion, before being demolished in the 1920s. The Cyclorama located on Little Collins Street was initially a bicycle school, before becoming a part of Georges Department Store. Fast forward to the 1990s, and the Cyclorama was turned into a luxury apartment precinct, with the iron rings that held up the paintings incorporated into the building’s immense skylight.

While Cyclorama culture only lasted in Australia for a few short years, it provided a source of entertainment in a time before cinema and television. The Cyclorama on Little Collins Street, while its purpose not entirely obvious, serves as a reminder of what has come before.