Coming to Drayton Hall: Historic Preservation in 3D

Posted on: July 22nd, 2013 by Aria Danaparamita

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Welcome to history's future. Drayton Hall, a National Trust site in Charleston, South Carolina, follows Colonial Williamsburg in going digital.

Unpack your bag, because you won’t need one for this virtual adventure. Introducing the latest in preservation technology: 3D imaging.

Now, you might be thinking, 3D has been around forever. Visualization software is now common for architects and designers. But for preservation and public history, it means something more: the magic of recreating lost space and time.

This past spring, Trish Smith, Drayton Hall’s house manager and preservation technician, became the first 3D visualization fellow at Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital History Center.

"I learned how to use software often used to create video games to build photorealistic, interactive models of historic buildings and landscapes,” she explains.

Her first project was modeling a building for Virtual Williamsburg 1776. Now, she’s bringing the creative know-how to Drayton Hall.

“I began working on a model of the interior of Drayton Hall circa 1765, complete with original paint colors and furnishings,” Smith says.

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Real life (top) versus digital reconstruction (bottom) of Drayton Hall's entrance.

Drayton Hall, a Georgian-Palladian plantation and Site of the National Trust near Charleston, South Carolina, has mostly remained structurally unchanged for almost three centuries. That said, the building is currently being preserved in its 1974 condition when it was acquired from the Drayton family. 3D will allow the two worlds, past and present, to coexist.

“We have no plans to ever restore it, but with this technology we can digitally restore it to its zenith in the 18th century,” Smith says. “We can also furnish the models with pieces from our collection that otherwise remain hidden from the public since we have no museum space.”

Smith uses three different programs: AutoCAD to draft line drawings, 3ds Max for artistic renditions, and Unity, a videogame engine to create the immersive environment.

To model a site, you begin by reviewing historical and archaeological evidence. Using photographs and measured drawings, the AutoCAD software renders the geometry of the building. Then, 3ds Max adds lighting, colors, and textures which can be taken from photographed samples, like the wood flooring at Drayton Hall, or newly designed. Finally, Unity engineers the 3D space for movement and interaction.

“It’s kind of magical to see it all come together,” says Smith.

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Real life (top) versus digital reconstruction (bottom) of Drayton Hall's stairs and balusters.

3D imaging can also give you what real life can’t. For example, Smith points to a narrow staircase at Drayton Hall that enslaved people may have used in the past. But since it's unsafe to walk it in real life, that layer of Drayton history has long lay hidden from visitors. Now, 3D can reconstruct the space and bring it back to life.

Smith is considering several options, including interactive displays at Drayton Hall and virtual trips online. Once the 3D models are finished, you'll be able to walk through the current, physical Drayton Hall, while the interactive screens on-site will virtually transport you to the 1700s. There -- or at your own computer if the models go online -- you can "walk around" by the programmed light of a flickering candle or fires crackling in hearths while a virtual pot of soup bubbles on a cast iron stove.

It’s the best of both worlds.

“It’s amazing the things you can do with it,” Smith says. “We’re sort of at the cutting edge, at least in America. I’m excited about the potential for this technology to help bring Drayton Hall to life for our visitors.”

Scroll through the slideshow for behind-the-scene imaging of Drayton Hall by Smith:

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Bonus materials: Take a tour of Virtual Williamsburg or check out similar projects at University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is a contributor to the PreservationNation blog and recent graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories. Follow her odd adventures on Twitter at @mitatweets.

Architecture, Restoration, Slideshows