July 22, 2014

Curley House Receives Its Digital Close-Up

A scan of the Curley House using a Leica C10. Image courtesy Feldman Land Surveyors

Thanks to the work of Wentworth students and faculty, and external collaborators, the legacy of the James Michael Curley House in Jamaica Plain is guaranteed to be preserved for all future generations.

Situated near picturesque Jamaica Pond, the stately, 18-room Georgian Revival-style house was home to Curley, the former mayor of Boston, for 41 years. Curley sold the house in 1956 and it changed hands several more times until purchased by the City of Boston in 1988. No one has regularly occupied the house since that time, however, and The Friends of the James Michael Curley House have looked into options for preserving the property that the city currently maintains.

Roughly 5,000 miles away, Jody Gordon, assistant professor in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, worked last year as an archeologist in Cyprus where he was introduced to a Leica C10 laser scanner. The machine was used to scan the interior of hard-to-reach rock-cut tombs, producing detailed, three-dimensional representations that could be uploaded to an iPad. Upon Gordon’s return to America, he and Christopher Gleason, associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and chair of the Media, Culture, and Communications Studies Committee, spoke with adjunct professor Larry Overlan who detailed the ongoing usage issues at the Curley House, while Gordon mentioned his work with the 3D scanner.

In the fall of 2013, Gleason and Gordon created a new studio course entitled “Media, Culture, and Communications Studies Studio: Digital Approaches to Boston Culture,” designed to make use of Wentworth’s EPIC Learning initiative of project-based, interdisciplinary education. Students would have the opportunity to help create a virtual museum based on the Curley House, preserving it for generations to come.

“We wanted to bring technology to humanities through photogrammetry [the science of making measurements through photographs], laser scanning, and other innovative techniques,” said Gordon.

The class offered students different perspectives through the teachings of both an archeologist and an English professor, and also allowed them to work on a real-world project in the Curley House. According to Gordon, the work could not have been done without Feldman Land Surveyors, who offered pro-bono laser scanning services for the entire house.

“It was a semester-long project and each student was in charge of researching a room,” said Gleason. “The project ran very smoothly thanks to a lot of external help and this laser scanning is amazing.”

Javier Heinsen, Civil Engineering ’16, and his group developed a prototype for a video game that allows users to walk around the house. He related that he was not familiar with Curley before, but that “it’s interesting to learn about [Curley’s] world back then and bring part of it to life.” Like Heinsen, Alejandra Garcia, Electromechanical Engineering ’14, was not familiar with Curley prior to the project, but her work further strengthened her appreciation for local history. “I was involved with the curation of Mary D. Curley’s room. She was considered a princess by Boston society,” she said. “My team and I watched a movie of her wedding from 1935. It was very interesting to see a black and white film without sound, but still recognize some of the iconic buildings around Boston.”

Before students conducted research on the history of the house, the laser scanners were sent in to each room, creating a point cloud of millions of x,y,z points to form textures of both the interior and exterior of the property. The lasers are capable of measuring items within an accuracy of a quarter of an inch (the same technology was recently used to scan the Filene’s Basement site in the Downtown Crossing section of Boston). Students were then asked to research the house through traditional means, as well as the new technology afforded them. 

Members of Wentworth are not the only ones benefiting from the preservation of the house, however. Richard J. Dennis serves as the Friends president and lived at the house after his mother married Curley.

“Curley was a good man, always busy and always working,” said Dennis. “The work being done by the students and faculty has been remarkable.”

Boston City Counselor Matt O’Malley resides in Jamaica Plain and attended a presentation of the Curley Mansion project at Wentworth in April. He noted that not a week goes by in which he is not asked “what’s going on with the house?”

“Mayor Curley was such a revered figure in my household,” he said, “and this is a remarkable project. I am so excited and 100 percent with Wentworth on it.”

An exhibit featuring work from the project is currently on display at the Alumni Library on campus through September 26. For more information on the project, visit http://studio.wit-mccs.org/curleyproject.

© Wentworth Institute of Technology   |   550 Huntington Avenue   |   Boston, MA 02115   |   617-989-4590