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Drexel University Students Are Rebuilding 18th Century Colonial Philadelphia in 3-D Digital Forms

October 15, 2007

Drexel University Students Are Rebuilding 18th Century Colonial Philadelphia in 3-D Digital Forms
Drexel University students and digital media professor Glen Muschio are piecing together history and artifacts to bring 18th century colonial Philadelphia to life not only for locals but for people worldwide via a virtual world similar to Second Life.

The project, 3-D Colonial Philadelphia, serves as a research and production center for 3-D models, animations and interactive media. It is a repository for virtual artifacts and digital assets associated with colonial life and when completed will provide searchable databases for scholars and researchers. The project’s objective is to create an environment appropriate for teaching colonial American history in the classroom and at historic sites.

“The project is unique in that it seeks to become a resource center for research, production, use and evaluation of digital assets for studying U.S. history,” said Muschio.

Three-D Colonial Philadelphia combines Second Life, history, computer science and teaching. One of the first homes rebuilt in the virtual 18th century Philadelphia is a two-story brick house located in the vicinity of Fifth and Arch Streets that belonged to James Oronoko Dexter, a prominent and free African American. Dexter is believed to have held meetings at his house for the creation of the first independent African American church. The original house was demolished in the 19th century, but recent archeological digs brought to light information about the house and site.

Muschio and a team of students have built the exterior and interior spaces of the home with historical accuracy and will scan artifacts found from the dig to restore the interior to its 18th century look. Another building, the Whitall House, home of wealthy Quakers, which still stands in Woodbury, N.J. opposite Philadelphia International Airport, was used as a model to create its virtual twin. Andrew Patras and Drew Nicolo, and two other Students Tracking Advanced Research program (STAR) students, produced a series of video vignettes that will be offered as podcasts for self- guided tours of the Whitall House. The STAR students will present their work this fall at a poster session of the 12th International Congress on "Cultural Heritage and New Technologies” in Vienna.

According to Muschio, the project’s goal is to rebuild the 18th century city and its ecosystem with avatars or digitized characters, which will offer visitors tours, explain the objects in each site and describe the site’s historical significance. The project will also include regional sites and events that were historically significant to the development of the city’s culture and economics.

“3-D Colonial Philadelphia will evolve as technology advances and as we too develop cutting- edge technology to move the field forward,” said Muschio.

The faculty and students will continue to create a database of digital assets, such as windows, doors, roof types and brickwork that can be used multiple times. They will research insurance, tax and deed records noting physical descriptions and positioning of structures.

“Using this method, it will not be possible to know what every specific house in the city looked like,” said Muschio. “Detailed treatments will be reserved for historically significant structures that are well documented.”

Prior to the project’s launch, preliminary “proof of concept” and development work was conducted at several historic sites in Philadelphia. Under Drexel’s STAR, digital media freshman Brian Gadomski worked with digital media professor Chris Redmann to create digital assets for the project. These will be used to assess through a recently funded grant the effectiveness of utilizing 3-D assets to teach colonial American history.

Redmann, an architect and 3-D animator with an interest in historic preservation, is directing the construction of the 3-D virtual environments. He’s teaching his undergraduate and graduate students to use the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) as guides for reconstructing 3-D models of historic buildings. (Learn more about these guides at These digital assets will be used to construct virtual period buildings that are known to have stood on specific plots, but are undocumented in terms of detailed descriptions.

The multi-disciplinary project will bring together faculty and students from Drexel’s Computer Science department in the College of Engineering, Culture and Communication department in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Information Science and Technology and the School of Education.


News Media Contact: Niki Gianakaris, Assistant Director, Drexel News Bureau 215-895-6741, 215-778-7752 (cell) or

DEMO… please download a demo of the project at: Anselma Mill Whitehall House HMS Augusta Dexter House

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