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Iconic Barn to Live On Through Digital Preservation

March 15, 2017

The barn east of campus sustained severe and irreparable damage during last month’s storms.Campus community members have likely heard the news by now: The barn, one of UC Merced’s most beloved and iconic landmarks, sustained severe and irreparable damage during last month’s storms.

Powerful wind and driving rain battered the vintage wood-frame structure. Although it currently looks the same when viewed from campus, the barn’s east-facing side shows an unfortunate reality.

“The wind peeled off a sheet of the barn’s roof along with a piece of the side paneling and essentially rolled it off like it was a piece of carpet,” said Tibor Toth, assistant vice chancellor for Facilities Management.

Michael McLeod, associate vice chancellor for Physical Operations, Planning and Development, announced news of the barn’s troubles in a campuswide message distributed March 7.

“This damage created an unstable and unsafe situation,” he wrote. “Officials condemned the structure and ordered it ‘red-tagged’ as too dangerous to inhabit.”

Workers installed a fence to secure the area, clean the debris and assess the building materials and equipment at the site. The barn will eventually be dismantled, but that work hasn’t yet started.

“Our first step was to contain the area,” Toth said, adding that the land is part of a working dairy ranch. “We still have researchers going out to the reserve, so we had to make sure the area is safe in order to continue those operations.”

Facilities Management will partner with the campus’s fire marshal, building inspectors and safety officials to conduct environmental assessments of the barn’s building materials and contents. Plans are underway to salvage, record and preserve wood and other materials before the structure is taken apart.

Technology Enables Digital Preservation

While many were saddened to hear of the barn’s looming demise, an effort led by World Heritage Professor Nicola Lercari will ensure that the structure lives on virtually.

Using drones and other equipment to capture images, the goal is to create digital documentation and virtual reconstructions of the barn and its surroundings. The images would be available to view in the Wide-Area Visualization Environment (WAVE) lab and at a planned outdoor kiosk accessible to the public.

To accomplish this, Lercari is working with a team that includes postdoc Arianna Campiani and students Jad Aboulhosn, Jack Flynn and Isabella Domi from the Heritage Interpretation Visualization and Experience (HIVE) lab and the School of Engineering, and additional students in the World Heritage minor program,— along with Jeffrey Weekley and Fisher Dietz from the WAVE lab and Brandon Stark of the Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety.

This image of the barn was captured using laser scanning technology.Lercari was already working on the digital preservation project well before the storms occurred. He came up with the idea in 2015 after he joined the university as a professor.

“I have always been fascinated by old buildings and historic places,” said Lercari, who has studied structures in Bodie State Historic Park and others from California’s Gold Rush era. He thought that the barn’s structure and its close proximity to the campus made it an ideal location for the HIVE Lab’s research.

Students, Donors Make Contributions

In 2016, students from the World Heritage 160 class, Advanced Methods in Digital Heritage, began training and conducting motion and terrestrial laser scanning surveying. By fall, Lercari was working with Jeff Porto Jr., with Development and Alumni Relations, to involve donors interested in his preservation research.

Then the storms occurred.

“That changed our plans,” Lercari said. “We essentially switched to a salvage operation in order to capture data before any other storms occur and the barn collapses.”

The visualizations will enable future students, campus community members and visitors to “virtually peek” at the barn, even after its removal.

“We want to create a website and a mobile phone application to make the visualizations available to the public,” Lercari said.

The digital recreations would also available for viewing in the WAVE lab. The hope is to have the website and the mobile app developed by the end of the year, Lercari said. To meet that ambitious timeline, he is looking for undergraduate computer science students willing to join the project.

The digital preservation project is about providing students with hands-on experience, fostering opportunities that support their success while preserving UC Merced’s history. For Lercari, it’s also a labor of love.

During his time at UC Merced as a postdoc, he often found himself on the second floor of the Social Sciences and Management Building, where he had a clear view of the barn.

“I would go to that big picture window to stare at it, and I brought people there when they visited the campus for the first time,” he said. “The barn is a symbol of UC Merced’s pioneering spirit.”