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Virtual Architectural Archaeology Brings D.C. Buildings Back to Life

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This computer rendering shows what the now-vanished Kalorama Mansion probably looked like. The building was torn down around 1890.
Stephen Hansen
This computer rendering shows what the now-vanished Kalorama Mansion probably looked like. The building was torn down around 1890.

Local architectural historian Stephen Hansen has found a way to bring new meaning to the phrase, "Gone, but not forgotten." The head of historic preservation and design firm D.C. Historic Designs has launched a blog called "Virtual Architectural Archaeology: Recreating the Lost (or Nearly Lost) Built Environment in and around Washington, D.C."

He acknowledges that "virtual architectural archaeology" isn't exactly a term you hear thrown around all the time.

"It evolved over time," he says. "It's actually the synthesis of computer technology, that's the 'virtual' part, and archaeology, not taken in the traditional sense, but meaning the discovery and unearthing of data that would allow one to recreate an architectural phenomenon or building."

Hansen takes old buildings in the Washington region, some damaged and decrepit, some long disappeared, and creates computer models of what these structures looked like in their golden age. An example is the Holt House, a neo-classical building located high on a hilltop on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

Hansen says the house probably dates back to the turn of the 19th century. A slew of people have resided in the place since then, but it gets its name from its last private owner: Dr. Henry Holt.

"He was a retired Civil War surgeon," Hansen explains. "And he owned the house until he sold it to the Smithsonian and the National Zoo in 1889. When he bought the house, it was quite derelict then, and it just continued to go downhill ever since then."

The Zoo used Holt House for office space until the 1980s. Now, the House sits silent and abandoned.

But if you go to Stephen Hansen's blog, you'll see a full-color computer rendering of Holt House in all its former glory: its walls are sparkling white, its grand, columned porch commanding a glorious view of what is now Walter Pierce Park. Hansen says the process of creating this rendering took months of research.

"We actually did a lot of analysis of the construction of the building itself," he says. "I had interns up here counting bricks of me so we could get dimensions of the house because we know exactly the size the brick was in 1800. So if someone says it's six bricks high, I know exactly what that is."

Hansen says he and his team were lucky, since they were able to use a document called the Historic American Building Survey, which the Smithsonian commissioned.

"It's done through the National Park Service and what they do is they document buildings which are in danger of demolition." Luckily, the survey included Holt House.

Another recent virtual reconstruction Hansen completed is the Kalorama Mansion, which once stood on the corner of present-day 23rd and S Streets in Northwest D.C. The house stood there until around 1890, when S Street was extended from Florida to Massachusetts Avenues.

"That was actually more of a challenge than the Holt House," Hansen says, "because the Holt House had been pretty well documented. But with the Kalorama Mansion we didn't have those resources. We had two amateur watercolors, and an etching of the house and those didn't match up to each other."

Hansen says luckily they did have one photograph, taken when the house became a smallpox hospital during the Civil War.

"After the war, in 1865, the hospital closed down," Hansen recounts. "But the remaining staff decided to have a Christmas Eve party, and during the party an unattended woodstove caught fire and just basically gutted the building."

"The family that owned it did rebuild it later in the 1870s, so there's just one photograph of the house after the fire," he continues. "Which actually we learned a lot from because it was a very detailed high-resolution photograph."

Hansen acknowledges that in the case of the Kalorama Mansion, he's basically setting out to do the impossible: i.e. reconstruct a building that is no longer there.

"That's what's so exciting about it," he says. "To take a building that's no longer there, which only exists in drawings, and actually create a 3-D model, and make it as near photorealistic as we can, really brings life to something that's no longer there."

Hansen says the process is also exciting because it aids preservation. As people view his renderings, they can think about how to restore the house, and "what would it look like after a restoration or what should it look like."

The primary mission of his blog, Hansen says, is "to get people interested in the past." In fact, he says his renderings of the Holt House got some very important people interested.

"The initial recreations of the house caught the attention of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, who then got in touch with Smithsonian and said, 'Hey! Look at what this guy's doing! Get in touch with him. Find out what's going on. This could be drawing more attention to this house. Do we want this?'"

"It really made everybody think quickly because suddenly the house was alive; it existed. People were able to see what it looked like when it was built and then see what condition it's been left to. The comparison of the two is quite a shocker."


[Music: "I Remember You" by Charlie Parker from Charlie Parker]

Photos: Virtual Architectural Archaeology

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