Visualizing the Past

Over the past several months, the DSL has been collaborating with the Library of Virginia, and Maurie McInnis, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of art history at the University of Virginia on the To Be Sold– Virginia and the American Slave Trade exhibition. Read more about the exhibition below. Our role in the project was to create a 3D visualization of Richmond in the early 1850’s. The 3D visualization is used to help visitors envision Erye Crowe’s journey through Richmond, and experience the slave trade through his paintings and engravings. The models’ intent is not to replicate every detail of Richmond in 1853, but provide a sense of the architectural styles and atmosphere of the city at the time.  This has been a challenge considering the time period and lack of information on such a grand scale. The foundation of any 3D project is footprints, which are a little hard to come by in the 1850’s. We discovered a map made by F.W Beers in 1876 that detailed buildings, parks, and other features quite well. Below is one export from David Rumsey’s Map Collection. We also used these as the basemap for the model.


F.W Beers map of Richmond published in 1876. Export from David Rumsey’s Map Collection.

The problem with the Beer’s map is that it depicts Richmond 20 years later than decade of interest. To resolve this issue we referenced several maps of Richmond during the 1850’s and adjusted our footprints accordingly.  After georeferencing these images and digitizing the footprints, we started to think about modeling methods for a project like this. With the help of Maurie McInnis and Scott Nesbit, we gathered numerous photos showing buildings and detailed descriptions of material and architectural styles for the time period. We wanted to provide the greatest amount of detail without modeling 3,000+ buildings by hand. For buildings we had photos or descriptions for, our student interns modeled these using Google Sketchup. With the help of Nathaniel Ayers and I, the students modeled more than 30 buildings around Richmond for the 1850s. The students really enjoyed the project and got immersed in the details of the building they were modeling.

Even though the students modeled over 30 buildings we still had at least 3000 yet to model, with no real idea what the majority of them looked like. I’ve heard about CityEngine by ESRI for a while, but have never experimented with it. After reading about the Rome Reborn project I felt it was a perfect solution to our problem. In short, CityEngine uses a procedural modeling approach. By using rule files and GIS data, you can populate a large scale 3D model in a matter of moments.  Maurie helped us a great deal on this portion by providing detailed descriptions of facades and architectural styles found in Richmond at the time.  Both the Sketchup and CityEngine models were exported and brought into 3D Studio Max. Nathaniel Ayers did an outstanding job rendering the buildings, adding trees, and animating the video. Bringing everything into 3D Studio Max gave the model consistency since we used two different software’s to populate the buildings.

This project utilized a combination of modeling approaches, which served us well considering the time period and information available. Procedural modeling allows us to focus on the architectural details of a specific time/ place and apply these styles over a city—giving you a sense of what a city might have looked like during that time. Using this along with traditional/more detailed modeling approaches resulted in a stunning visualization showcasing the architectural features rather than specific building types, all without compromising the rest of the scene because of specific building descriptions.  To see the whole video click here or visit the To Be Sold exhibit at the Library of Virginia starting Monday, October 27, 2014—Saturday, May 30, 2015. Along with the exhibition we hope to present this work at the upcoming ESRI Users Conference this July.

Screen capture showing birds eye view of Richmond  Virginia in 1853.

Screen capture showing bird’s eye view of Richmond Virginia in 1853.

Screen capture showing the Capitol looking west.

Screen capture showing the Capitol looking west.

Birds eye view looking West over the city.

Bird’s eye view looking West over the city.

Screen capture of the American Hotel.

Screen capture of the American Hotel.


To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade
Monday, October 27, 2014—Saturday, May 30, 2015
Time: 9:00 AM–5:00 PM
Place: Lobby and Exhibition Hall,  Free

This groundbreaking exhibition will explore the pivotal role that Richmond played in the domestic slave trade. Curated by University of Virginia professor Maurie McInnis, To Be Sold will draw from her recent book, Waiting to Be Sold: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, and be anchored by a series of paintings and engravings by Eyre Crowe, a British artist who witnessed the slave trade as he traveled across the United States in 1853. This internal trade accounted for the largest forced migration of people in the United States, moving as many as two million people from the Upper South to the Cotton South. Virginia was the largest mass exporter of enslaved people through the Richmond market, making the trade the most important economic activity in antebellum Virginia. This exhibition will not be merely a story of numbers and economic impact, but also one that focuses on individuals and the impact that the trade had on enslaved people.

  8 comments for “Visualizing the Past

  1. October 16, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Amazing work. I am wondering if you have looked at archaeological data at all in your process. In particular, the Lumpkin’s Jail excavations can provide some very detailed information about the Lumpkin’s complex, as well as some elevation data. The folks who worked on the project, at James River Institute for Archaeology, has also done some 3d recreations that could be particularly helpful.

    Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital History Center is an excellent place to look for a model of working with archaeological data to do 3d digital reconstructions.

    • Justin Madron
      October 16, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      Terry, Thanks for the comment! We visited a little of the archaeological data for lumpkin’s and based our model on its descriptions. Our problem was scale–trying to model all of Richmond in a reasonable amount of time. I will check out Colonial Williamsburg’s Digital History Center, might be something we could incorporate on our next version!

      • October 21, 2014 at 4:24 pm

        Justin, let’s talk. I’d love to get you in touch with the folks at JRI who did the excavations. The 3D is critical for why this site is so interesting: The jail was located on a slope, and a large brick wall separated the jail from the rest of the buildings in the Lumpkin’s complex. Really fascinating stuff. I’ll send you an email.

        • Justin Madron
          October 21, 2014 at 5:42 pm

          Terry, sounds great! I will keep a lookout for your email. Look forward to talking with you.

  2. Alice Lynch
    October 21, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    How wonderful! I just posted the article on the Virginia Capitol Foundation’s Facebook page. I know that all who are interested in the Capitol will find your work as fascinating as I did. It’s amazing to see area around Capitol Square in 3D. When I first read about DSL, I had no idea that it was a University of Richmond project. Also, Maurie is married to one of our former trustees.

    • Justin Madron
      October 21, 2014 at 3:15 pm

      Alice, Thanks for the comment and posting our project to the Virginia Capitol Foundation’s Facebook page. It has been an exciting project to work on, and a great opportunity to collaborate with Maurie and the Library of Virginia!

  3. October 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

    This is a great project – if you want to improve the visualization of the trees you should contact Greg McPherson (Forest Service; Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, CA).

    • Justin Madron
      October 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Greg, Thanks for the comment and contact info. The reason we used the low resolution trees were to cut down on the rendering time of the video. We will most likely add higher quality trees if we do anymore still shots, and I will be sure to contact Greg at the USFS.

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