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Lasers document Wright synagogue near Philadelphia

| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, 8:24 p.m.
In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 photo, a laser scanner captures the interior of the landmark Beth Sholom synagogue during a demonstration for the media, in Elkins Park, Pa. Crews using lasers are creating a high-definition 3-D scan of Frank Lloyd Wright's historic Beth Sholom synagogue outside Philadelphia for documentation and preservation. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

ELKINS PARK — It's a stunner that still turns heads at the age of 53, but Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Beth Sholom synagogue just had a laser treatment.

Although it won't do anything for your laugh lines, an invaluable tool uses lasers to create three-dimensional maps in minute detail for historic documentation and preservation.

Three backpack-sized scanners mounted on heavy-duty tripods were set in strategic spots inside and outside the landmark building outside Philadelphia this month, slowly rotating 360 degrees while shooting out green pulses of light 50,000 times a second. Each light beam wirelessly transmits a single line of corresponding points to a nearby laptop; row by row, the image takes shape.

It took three days to complete the roughly 40 indoor and 20 outdoor scans needed to digitally map the entire structure's every nook, cranny and flourish. Next, the hundreds of millions of collected data points will be turned into a three-dimensional scale model of the synagogue.

The project was undertaken by Abington-based DJS Associates, which often performs laser scans to document crime and crash scenes for forensic investigations, and Oakland, Calif.-based CyArk, a nonprofit foundation that digitally records historic sites and monuments — dozens of them so far, from Mount Rushmore to Pompeii — to create an enduring record.

“The scanners are set up in various places, and the completed scans are knit together,” said Terry Myers Sr., DJS survey specialist. “Eventually, you have a finished 3-D image.”

DJS donated its time and services to the project, which the company estimates would cost $50,000 to $75,000. CyArk works to seek corporate and foundation grants and other kinds of financial assistance to help fund its projects.

Such high-def documentation could be used to repair or recreate a damaged structure and will eventually be posted online for anyone to take a virtual tour. That process takes months to complete.

Not only do the lasers read the dimensions of the room and the placement of everything in them, they also can read color values. So flat-surfaced photos and portraits on the walls of the synagogue's ground floor don't show up as a frame with a blank space inside — the lasers “see” and reproduce them on the digital rendering.

“The virtual version is (precise) to within a millimeter,” said Justin Barton, CyArk's technical services manager working on the Beth Sholom project. “We'll have a very accurate point-in-time record that's digitally preserved.”

The only synagogue designed by Wright during the famed architect's 70-year, 1,000-project career, Beth Sholom was built between 1954 and 1959. Wright, who called his soaring creation of concrete, steel, aluminum and wire-reinforced glass “a Mount Sinai wrought in modern materials,” died five months before the temple was dedicated.

Beth Sholom was named a National Historic Landmark in 2007, with the Department of the Interior praising its “unparalleled architectural experience as it melds modernity and novelty with traditional meaning and iconography.”

The digital maps will be useful tools for establishing a baseline to which the synagogue can be compared for many years down the road when repairs are needed, said Harvey Friedrich, executive director of Beth Sholom Congregation. The synagogue's soaring geometric shape has made it prone to leaks almost since the day it opened, and it suffered minor damage in the gusty and rainy remnants of Superstorm Sandy.

“The integrity of the structure is obviously very important,” he said. “This place presents its challenges, but it's never boring.”

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