U.Va. Professor's Digital Recreation Gives Life to Monticello's Mulberry Row

March 27, 2012

Mulberry Row was once Main Street at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello plantation, a bustling community of activity that included storage sheds; housing for enslaved and free workers; workshops including a smokehouse and dairy, a nailery, an iron shop, joinery and other manufacturing enterprises along a 1,000 foot-long road south of the main house.

Today, little remains – a workman's house and later a textile workshop, part of the original stable and a few visible foundations along a row of newly planted mulberry trees. Until now, visitors had to imagine what the structures looked like and the lives and activities that filled them.

Earl Mark, a professor in the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, is helping to bring Mulberry Row back to life through a digital re-creation of the structures that builds upon 50 years of research by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello, archeologists and historians. He also called on his experience creating digital re-constructions for exhibitions at Jamestown and Menokin Plantation in Warsaw, Va., and has created similar models of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y. for the the National Building Museum, and of U.Va.'s Academical Village for the kickoff of the University's capital campaign in 2006.

The project is part of a larger effort to study, interpret and understand Mulberry Row more completely, said Susan Stein, Richard Gilder Senior Curator and vice president of museum programs at Monticello and lead curator on the project, which is funded with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private contributions. "The digital models are ways for us to visualize and understand the lost buildings," she said.

Working with a team of experts, Mark relied on documentary and archeological evidence and Jefferson's own drawings and notes to piece together his re-creation, which to date includes five of the more than 20 buildings that lined Mulberry Row – three slave dwellings, a smokehouse/dairy and a storehouse for iron that was sometimes used for nail-making. More are planned in the future.

A video of the re-creation plays on a large-screen monitor on the east side of the gift shop, located in a 20th-century building on Mulberry Row. "You can turn away from the monitor to see where the three dwellings were," Mark said.

He created plans for the three phases of building: 1770 to 1790, 1791 to 1809, and 1810 to Jefferson's death in 1826. He drew upon a map drawn by Jefferson to obtain an insurance policy from the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia to accurately place the buildings. The plat was completed during phase two – the most extensive building period, Mark said.

He places the buildings in context, so viewers understand their location to today's landscape. Each digitally manipulated building is sited on a photograph of its setting.

The project "has been even more effective and visually dramatic that we expected," Stein said. "It's revealing, evocative and turns out to be a very effective means of helping people visualize the site."

Mark paid attention to detail at every level. The simple dirt floors of the dwellings, the slightly weathered clapboards, the placement of the tree stumps for the anvils and bellows in the joinery and the tools in the smokehouse are rendered for accuracy.

An expert from Colonial Williamsburg answered questions about the quality of the flame in the fire – How big? Was there smoke? How much do you see? – all contributing to a truthful interpretation, Mark said.

"I've seen a level of authentication, care, scrutiny that has been really remarkable," Mark said. "A team of people debating, giving interpretations, using all their education, all their experience to try to come up with a plausible scenario. That's pretty inspiring to me."

Because the handmade clapboards would not have been uniform – perhaps a little narrower at one end, or thicker in parts ¬– and conventional modeling software would render the boards identically, Mark wrote macro programs with Bentley Systems Generative Components software. The programs use random-number generators and spline geometry to model the clapboards as they might have appeared. He applied the same level of detail to the log structures, joinery and windows. He even considered time of day and season to represent the buildings as they would have appeared on a spring afternoon when the angle of the sun would reveal the details on the north side of the buildings, which lined the south side of Mulberry Row.

"That level of scrutiny to detail, that level of care to understanding the nature of how it was constructed, not just the broad look and feel of it, is important to the way they do archeology here," Mark said. "Things that you wouldn't think mattered, that aren't self-evident to the casual eye, matter to them, which is why those models were redone several times."

The models also contribute to the discussion and active scholarship about the buildings and their use. "A 3-D model makes evident and reconciles different points of view about what the structure looks like," Mark said. "It's not a by-product of research; it's a way of uncovering gaps in spatial knowledge and reconciling different understandings."

The re-construction and animation are also part of the exhibition, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," on view through Oct. 14 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington. The show was jointly organized by Monticello and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "The exhibit in Washington and on Mulberry Row are the product of more than 50 years of study," Stein said.

Mark said he was moved as he observed a descendant of Mulberry Row's inhabitants watching the re-creation at the exhibit's opening."Just capturing the true look of the articles, spaces, houses and workshops is valuable to a sense of history," he said. "If it was my ancestors, it would help me have a sense of what the time was like, what skills and knowledge they used, and the everyday world they encountered, and I think that's important."

A website devoted to Mulberry Row and the understanding of the landscape of slavery at Monticello includes portions of the digital reconstructions for the smokehouse/dairy, the servants' houses, and the storehouse for iron.

Mark is working on a Mulberry Row smartphone app that will include re-construction for each of the five sites for which he created digital models, allowing exploration from various angles. It will include images of Jefferson's farm book, biographical sketches and letters and other documentation and artifacts, all accompanied by audio. As visitors walk the site, the information is triggered by geo-referencing the location. The app is expected to launch this summer.

"It's a way for visitors to be active learners and to dig deeper if they wish," Stein said. "That's what we're all about, bringing Monticello to life and sharing its history and Jefferson with people everywhere."

– by Jane Ford