Development of the Virtual Historic Savannah Project stemmed
from two general motivating factors. First, the absence
of a comprehensive study of Savannah's architectural and urban
history; and, second, the belief that the use of computer
technology provides a powerful and effective interactive complement
to books and still photography for documenting and studying
urban history in a comprehensive manner. From the outset,
it was apparent that the project provided an environment in
which various kinds of historical information, both textual
and visual, could be synthesized and thereby made to appeal
to a broad audience with a variety of research interests.
Preliminary Work: 1997-1998
Development and Testing,
The first year of work on the project saw project director
Robin Williams and coordinator of technology Greg Johnson
form a team to address fundamental problems relating to the
layout, scope, technology, and basic operation of the project.
SCAD Computer Art department chairman, Graham Clark, provided
valuable guidance during this period. Much effort was focused
on the identification of historical resources and the testing
of a variety of research and computer modeling methodologies.
The "Jasper Ward" Prototype: 1998 - 2001
Most of the early work on the project concentrated on developing
and testing a basic one-ward (12-city-block) prototype. Jasper
Ward was selected for its relatively central location in downtown
Savannah and for its architecturally heterogeneous character.
The variety and complexity of its building sizes, styles and
materials, on the one hand, and the obvious succession of generations
of buildings, on the other, offered a useful test bed for the
conceptual and technical design of the project.
A series of public and conference presentations provided valuable
feedback from a wide range of audiences – historic preservationists,
art educators, architecture students, historians, educators
who use computer technology, and members of the general public.
The very first presentation, at the National Trust for Historic
Preservation conference in Savannah in October 1998, generated
an extremely enthusiastic response, reflected in the review
published in the magazine Preservation:
The first version
of the website was launched in October 1998.
Poised at the cutting edge, SCAD architectural history
professor Robin Williams explained the Virtual Historic
Savannah Project, which analyzes urban form by using computer
animation to navigate through space and time. Williams
`flew’ his audience through and above the streets surrounding
Madison Square which is serving as the test case for Savannah-wide
coverage. (“In the Savannah Manner,” Preservation,
January/February 1999, pg. 85)
Completion of the Jasper Ward prototype was facilitated by
grants awarded in 2000 from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, Division of Public Programs ($50,200) and the
Georgia Humanities Council ($9,766). Work on the project
proceeded both at a dramatically increased pace and in close
consultation with a team of professional consultants and local
advisors. Modeling efforts involved the creation of higher
resolution models of buildings and experimental models of
trees; while research expanded beyond building histories to
include documenting every resident of the ward in decade intervals,
from 1860-2000, based on City Directories and, in 1900, on
the much more detailed Census. The greatest effort, however,
went into designing the database architecture for the project
by Williams, Johnson and database consultant Léon Robichaud
– selecting the programs, defining and creating all of the
tables and fields, creating sample data-input screens and
initiating data input.
A second version
VHSP website was
launched in March 2001.
A second version of the VHSP website was launched in March
2001, incorporating many of the suggestions made by the consultants
and advisors. In anticipation of the need to expand the project
content from the Jasper Ward prototype to the whole downtown
district, the project team adopted a new working methodology
-- of developing content in relatively "thin" district-wide
data layers, rather than proceeding ward by ward. During
2001, the compilation of a preliminary master list of existing
buildings and the photographic documentation of about 700
buildings served as the first tests of this new method.
Expanding to Include Downtown Historic
District: 2002 - 2004
The receipt in April 2002 of a two-year grant from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Preservation and
Access ($150,000), helped extend and accelerate efforts on
the project. The Williams-Johnson project team expanded to
include two former consultants: Léon Robichaud from the Université
de Sherbrooke to supervise the database development; and Christopher
Hendricks from Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah
to assist with the supervision of social history research.
The pool of research assistants, drawn mainly from the Architectural
History program at SCAD, also expanded in 2002.
The third version of the VHSP website was launched in May 2003,
with a dramatically revised user interface and with the website
driven for the first time by a database -- both made possible
by the solving of programming issues, such as linking objects
in the 3D model to the database. The first set of district-wide
data layers, completed in summer 2003, include for all 2,200
existing buildings in the district a low-resolution model, a
new photograph and basic architectural data; data will also
include lists of occupants for each building in decade intervals
(2000, 1990, etc.); and lists of property owners by lot.
A third version
VHSP website was
launched in May 2003.
For 2004-2005, work will focus on compiling and analysing data
on lost buildings, expanding architectural information on existing
buildings, and compiling detailed information on people from