Reality bytes: Mercantile gets a virtual resurrection through digital scanning. 

A deconstruction crew recently began tearing down the Missoula Mercantile to make way for a new Marriott hotel, a process that amounts to what "Save the Merc" campaigners lament as the slow-motion erasure of a cornerstone of the city's history.

But before the dismantlement commenced, the Merc was indeed saved for posterity—in digital form, at least. The downtown landmark survives as a three-dimensional rendering, produced using a laser scanning technology that academic researchers and preservationists are increasingly turning to as a means of documenting old buildings before they disappear.

Ryan Darling, the Missoula man who created the scan for the new hotel's architects, uses his laptop to click through the digital model on a recent morning at Market on Front. Darling's virtual tour begins in the alley next to Uptown Diner before, with the tap of finger, he plunges underground. He zooms through the Merc's unfinished basement, each crack in the old bricks visible in relief. A change in the viewing mode illuminates graffiti tagged on a pillar. The virtual Merc on the screen, Darling says, is accurate to within six millimeters of the physical structure still visible across the street from the coffeeshop.

It took Darling about a week of work and a few long nights to produce the Merc renderings using a terrestrial light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, scanner. Darling first began using the technology 14 years ago while working for his father's surveying company in Tucson, Arizona. At the time, 3D scanning was emerging as a new tool in the field. Since then, LiDAR has taken Darling into 5,000-foot-deep mineshafts and on naval vessels. Last year, he was hired as director of 3D laser scanning for DWP Live, an event production company based in Nashville. The company specializes in projecting elaborate animation shows onto buildings and, for instance, programming a laser-projected dragon to snake through the colonnades at Caesars Palace Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis—a project that requires precise measurements of 3D space.

click to enlarge Three-dimensional imaging has taken Missoula’s Ryan Darling into mine shafts and Radio City Music Hall. Last fall, he was hired to scan the Missoula Mercantile building before it is demolished. - IMAGE COURTESY RYAN DARLING
  • image courtesy Ryan Darling
  • Three-dimensional imaging has taken Missoula’s Ryan Darling into mine shafts and Radio City Music Hall. Last fall, he was hired to scan the Missoula Mercantile building before it is demolished.

Preservationists have also taken interest in how laser scanning can help document artifacts. Kelly Dixon, an archaeologist at the University of Montana, employed a LiDAR specialist a few years ago to catalog Coloma ghost town near Garnet, where abandoned cabins were beginning to collapse under the weight of snow. Recording the cabins by hand would have taken years, but the scans quickly captured their dimensions "down to the size of a nailhead."

"Not only does 3D scanning make our jobs more efficient when it comes to a large artifact like a building, but it also gives us more details, things we might have missed," she says.

Those details are important to researchers, but Dixon says virtual renderings can also offer the general public, particularly digital-savvy youth, a new way to connect with the past. She points to the tombs of Egypt's Valley of the Kings, which anyone can tour in 3D from their home, via the Theban Mapping Project.

Darling says the Denver-based architects of the Marriott commissioned his work chiefly for design purposes, particularly as they seek to integrate the pharmacy portion of the Merc into the future hotel. HomeBase Montana developer Andy Holloran says he's been speaking with officials from the city and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula about ways to incorporate Darling's imaging into the new building.

The Merc is the second Missoula building Darling has documented. He previously scanned the Heyfron House, a few blocks east on Front Street, as a demonstration for a UM researcher who is cataloguing the building before it's demolished to make way for student housing. He muses about scanning more of Montana's ghosts towns, just for fun, if he can find the time.

"I'm hoping we can start to document a lot of our history here in this way," Darling says.

Dixon sees the technology as an "emblem of the future" for research and preservation. "Although," she adds, "there's nothing like the real thing."

This story was updated March 20.

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