General Update

For the past few months, I’ve been working on the 3D Black Boston project team researching David Walker’s life and home with the end goal of creating an immersive 3D reconstruction of his residence on 8 Belknap Street. The project requires a combination of research and reconstruction techniques that, for the most part, were new to me. My background as an architecture student gave me prerequisite knowledge regarding how to construct a building digitally but I’d never done research for a historic preservation project. Additionally, the immersive VR aspects of the project means I’ve had to learn new software including Unity in order to render SketchUp models and eventually create the simulation.

The research methods we used were novel to me as well. The research material we were searching (sources that provided information about Walker and his residence) were especially difficult to find because the project is centered around a Black male abolitionist in the 1800s. Writings and records from that time, such as census data and newspapers, are heavily biased towards white perspectives; thus, finding accurate information on David Walker’s life and home has proven difficult. There are inconsistencies regarding things such as the time and place of Walker’s birth, as well as when exactly he arrived at Boston. We’ve had to fill in the gaps of Walker’s life to try to create a narrative that is as coherent as possible for the purposes of this project; for example, looking at sources such as his famous appeal and the Freedom’s Journal newspaper which he worked on for a short time. We’ve encountered similar difficulties with his residence on Beacon Hill. Documents from the NPS cite tax records that approximate the date the house was built and surviving 1800’s buildings on Beacon Hill can give an insight into the architectural styles and layout of Walker residence. However, since the residence was rebuilt, it is challenging to make decisions in model reconstruction with any degree of certainty. Photographs or floorplans of Belknap Street in general are all but nonexistent before the home was rebuilt in the early 1900s.

Newspapers and illustrations as well as objects in various archives helped identify what kinds of models we needed to make, and I will admit I was initially surprised by the amount of detailed research each object required. Trying to recreate a simple object such as a pen means that I am required to know how pens were made and how far pen technology had advanced by 1820, as well as how expensive the different types of pens were and what materials would serve afterwards as examples for texturing in Unity. Finding references for these models in various archives has also been extremely helpful, but due to COVID, we’ve been unable to visit archives in person and are restricted to what has been recorded digitally.  I’ve modeled and textured a variety of objects including several of Walker’s appeals with different forms of pamphlet stitching and several writing tools which would be necessary given one of Walker’s occupations as an author.

3D textured unity model of an unfolded lap desk with several compartments and writing surfaces, primarily made of wood
 Textured lap desk model by Ananya Dhandapani
Image of an old unfolded lap desk with several compartments and writing surfaces, primarily made of wood. The object shows signs of age and use.
19th Century folding lap desk reference from https://www.pamono.com/19th-century-burl-campaign-lap-desk

Digital reconstruction as a way to explore history interests me on multiple levels. Architecture, in a sense, is a cultural record; the buildings people make and how they used them are intrinsically tied to a time and place in history. So, by researching Walker’s residence in detail and attempting to recreate it, we can gain valuable insight into his life and the culture of the time. Working on this project recontextualized my understanding of historical research; without substantial information about Walker himself and what belongings he might have owned made the process more concrete and approachable. This method continues to open up new avenues of research that I wouldn’t have considered had we just been looking at David Walker outside of his home, and I think it will ultimately lead to a more holistic understanding of the historic figure.

I’m also excited about using the reconstructed product in a virtual reality environment that people can explore. Not only will it take advantage of new technologies and hopefully lead to more projects of its kind being completed, it will also make this repository of detailed information about David Walker more accessible to people outside strictly academic circles. It will present information that would take up several pages in a densely written paper as a visual, interactive experience, making it easier for people to learn about historic communities such as Beacon Hill.

Researching and Modeling

So far, this project has been both very interesting and very challenging. I didn’t know anything about 3D modeling going into it, and I only had a basic understanding of David Walker and Boston’s abolitionist history. Prior to beginning this project, I had been working with the National Park Service in Boston on a digital project for the African Meeting House, so I did have a general background on the Boston abolitionist movement, but I was still missing a lot of information. Thus, this project began with a lot of research. I learned about David Walker’s life and legacy, about his home on Beacon Hill, and about his used clothing shop. Mostly, though, I learned that there is so much that we don’t know and so much information missing.

As frustrating as it was, I found it exciting to have to think creatively about new resources to investigate and to try to puzzle together Walker’s life. Before this, I hadn’t thought much about how a person’s gender, race, and social class could impact how well (or if at all) their life events were recorded. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense, but when I began my work I was surprised to find this.

Later in the project, I began trying to help research Walker’s house: the history of the
property, the floorplan, and what the views out of his windows might have been. This was especially challenging because, in addition to the fact that government sources did not always record the possessions and movements of Black people at this time, the land around Belknap Street (now Joy Street) had undergone many property rearrangements and many street name changes. Some of the most exciting resources I found came from this search. For me, finding and looking through the Taking Books (essentially old tax records listing names and possessions, but not always addresses) from the late 1700s and early 1800s was really fascinating. At some point, I started recognizing names of people in different tax books and started to piece some stories together. That was especially rewarding and I felt like I was finally beginning to get a grasp on the information.

A drawing of Beacon Hill's Streets, with present and past names.
Kira Torrieri, Drawing of Beacon Hill Streets Past & Present

In addition to research, I also spent a lot of my time working on 3D modeling. The first thing
we learned how to model in Google SketchUp was a simple chair. I had used Google SketchUp as a child, but not at all since then, so it was both exciting and difficult to dive back in after so long. After making some practice models and trying to figure out the different tools at my disposal, I began my first real SketchUp model: a hearth. I had decided I wanted to learn about kitchens and model items that might have been in Walker’s kitchen, so this seemed a good place to start. I had found an interesting resource called The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts, which details recipes, etiquette procedures, and cleaning tips for the maintenance of large households. Combining information from this book with my other kitchen research, I also modeled a cooking pot and fireplace tools. The cooking pot was really challenging for me because of all of the different curves and I went through several drafts of it before I was satisfied, but when it was completed I felt very
accomplished.

A progress photo of a cooking pot model made in Google SketchUp.
Kira Torrieri, Cooking Pot Model Progress in Google SketchUp

Once models had been created in SketchUp, the next step was to import them into Unity and add them to our full model of Walker’s house. I admittedly have not done as much work in Unity thus far, although learning about texturing and lighting and seeing how much more realistic it can make our models look is very intriguing!

I had already been excited about the possibilities of combining technology and history because of my work with the National Park Service, and this project really emphasized the potential of this type of collaboration. Technology gives us another way to interact with historical information.

It has the potential to be more immersive, more expansive, and more accessible than other sources of information such as reading a scholarly paper or visiting a historic site in person. Engaging with an interactive and historically accurate model is the next best thing to an actual visit to the historical site – something ideal but often not possible. Technology can also contain more information simply because it lacks the physical constraints of a real space and can, unlike a book, directly link to other resources for further learning. Furthermore, technology can enable people who may not be able to digest dense scholarly writing or may not have the means to travel to a historic site to engage with the information and hopefully connect to it. 3D modeling is especially powerful because of its immersiveness. In my opinion, the thing that makes using technologies such as 3D modeling in historical scholarship so powerful is the ability to help a wider audience connect more intimately with historical material. I have personally felt more connected to Walker’s life after trying to physically reconstruct his home, and I hope that this project will help others engage with Walker in a more personal way.