CERL researcher's work virtually saves Burnham Mansion

CERL researcher's work virtually saves Burnham Mansion

CHAMPAIGN — Soon the Burnham Manson will be virtually gone — but will live on forever, virtually.

Crews have been working to strip the mansion before demolition to make room for an $87.1 million expansion of Central High School.

The home at 603 W. Church St. has been there since 1884; Central's building didn't come along for another 50 years.

Carey Baxter, a researcher with the Army's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, has completed a virtual reproduction of the mansion far more detailed than any photographs could.

"The Burnham Mansion was more than three times bigger than any project I had done before," she said.

The Champaign School District gave her permission to laser scan the entire building. CERL had been looking for a building to scan as a training exercise. A similar device was used to scan the Alma Mater statue before its restoration.

Baxter is an archaeologist. The Department of Defense must comply with federal historic preservation laws, so Burnham seemed like the perfect test.

"We wanted to have a data set that we could experiment with and use as a demonstration," she said.

And the school district wanted it, too. It was the perfect moment in a sad series of events.

"Nobody lived in it, so we wouldn't be disturbing any residents," Baxter said.

"There were a lot of architectural details to capture, it was big enough to be a challenge, and we would be digitally capturing something that wasn't going to be around much longer."

The laser shoots out a million points a second. The district provided access to the house in exchange for copies of the data.

And that's a lot of data — "200 gigabytes in one file," she said.

It has to be one file because the scan is continuous, taken over four-and-a-half days.

"I found out I'd made a mistake and that took another half-day," she said.

The reason the scan took so long, she said, is that they were collecting photographs along with the laser-scan data.

"For every 360-degree scan, we also collected 274 digital images," Baxter said.

"The benefit of that is that the point cloud that we generated has real-world color values assigned to each point. Each scan took, on average, 20 minutes. The scan itself took about four minutes and the rest was the photos."

The detail is critical.

"One of the things that struck me as unusual is how much of the original details were left. Many of the original hardwood floors, bathroom fixtures and cabinets seemed to be original. It is hard to understand how any of that survived decades of use as a rental property," she said.

After years of use, Burnham's right angles deteriorated.

Imagine how long it would take to measure the dimensions of every room and the angle of all the corners. Now imagine how long to get the measurements to do a detailed drawing of each one of the unique fireplaces, crown moldings, window casings, door frames, hand-carved wood paneling," she said.

The scanner goes where no human can fit.

"The scanner can also collect data from places where you wouldn't be able to measure in a more traditional manner. We recorded accurate measurements of the decorative woodwork in the exterior third floor of the house," Baxter said.

"There isn't a way to get those measurements by hand without scaffolding. I was able to collect all of that data by myself in a week. Now that the scan data has been collected, people can use our data to create the traditional architectural drawings or 3-D models even after the house has been demolished."

She did not scan the basement or the attic due to lack of access. That probably would have added an extra day, she said.

Kind of science fiction here, but in these days of 3-D printing, could there be a Burnham 2.0?

"CERL probably won't make a model of the entire house," the archeologist said.

"We have been trying out different analysis techniques on portions of the house or individual decorative elements, but we have no plans to generate a 3-D model of the entire house," she said.

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