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.
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.