Zoo will grow when Cyclorama leaves Grant Park

The Cyclorama’s move to the Atlanta History Center will mean big changes for Zoo Atlanta.

Since 1892 the football-field-sized painting has been exhibited in Grant Park, adjacent to the zoo, and most of that time it’s been housed in a 1921-era building constructed specifically to hang the massive panoramic canvas.

When the painting moves to the Buckhead campus of the History Center — perhaps some time in 2016 — it will open up 5 acres of additional room for a zoo that could really use the space.

At less than 40 acres, Zoo Atlanta has one of the smallest footprints among major zoos in the United States. (Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia S.C. has 170 acres; the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro: 2,000.)

But the lack of space at Zoo Atlanta is trumped by another more immediate problem: potentially lonely elephants.

According to Raymond King, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which exerts strict controls on zoological parks, recommends its members maintain at least three elephants in any given collection. Elephants are social animals, and if one loses a companion and is left alone, its welfare suffers.

Zoo Atlanta has two female African elephants, Tara and Kelly, but no room to introduce a third. “We were literally at risk of having to let our elephants go,” said King, “and I will not let that happen.”

When the zoo annexes the Cyclorama’s property, it will create a new African Savannah habitat that will surround the former Cyclorama building, which will be retrofitted to become an events center. The habitat will have enough room for a bigger elephant family, and the beasts will stroll past windows and terraces at the new facility, creating a unique guest experience.

The zoo also plans to level the current administration building, creating a new, more welcoming entrance plaza, with water features and landscaping.

The cost of the improvements will be in the "tens of millions," said King — which will be in addition to the $23 million the zoo just raised for a new reptile and amphibian house and other improvements.

King said the expansion will help the zoo fulfill two objectives of its current master plan: create an event facility and expand the elephant habitat.

The zoo has no indoor accommodations for events of more than 200 people. This addition will help them capture a share of that market, estimated at 100 to 150 events a year, including corporate parties, convention gatherings and galas.

And, finally, said King, the move will the best for the painting. “It has been in a state of decline,” he said of the Cyclorama, adding that the new home should give it a bright future.