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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
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.

Development and Testing,
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.  

The first version of the website was launched in October 1998.
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:

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 of the
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.

A third version of the
VHSP website was
launched in May 2003.
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.

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 Censuses.