Digital Space and Place

Northeastern University, Spring 2018

Course Description




February 14th: 3D Modeling


Today we’ll be putting theoretical concepts of place into practice by creating 3D models of historical buildings. We are going to do so by modeling two historical buildings of what would later become Northeastern University. Northeastern’s first classes were offered in October 1898 as part of the Evening Institute for Younger Men. In material terms, what there during this time? And in more abstract terms, what kind of historical place was it? We’re going to try to answer these questions by looking at a set of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that offer building-by-building information about Boston in 1897 - the year prior to the university’s first official classes. These maps will provide us with clues about the existing meanings and processes of the place that the university would then transform in subsequent years.

We’re going to be looking at two sites:

First, the location of Northeastern’s first classes, which were offered a little over a mile from the present-day campus on Boyston and Berkeley streets.

Second, the present-day location of campus, right outside of Behrakis Health Sciences Center.

Today we’ll be trying to recreate the place of these two locations from 1897. What was at these two locations in 1897? What kinds of places were they? Can we recreate models of the built environment that was located at these places?

Sanborn Maps

Our starting point for recreating a historical understanding of place is Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Boston, Volume 2 (1897): The first page of the volume offers an overview of the different map sheets contained within the volume. For our purposes, the most important feature is the map key in the bottom right-hand corner. This is what we’ll use to decipher the meanings of individual maps. I have provided a JPG version of this over Slack so that you can use it for reference during the rest of class.

Group 1 will be looking at a Sanborn map of where Northeastern’s first classes took place. This is Map 11: Group 2 will be looking at a Sanborn map of the present-day campus. This is Map 53:

  1. Orient yourself. Take some time to explore the layout of the Sanborn map and its features. Pull up a modern map of the same area in Google Maps and find some points of reference (cross-streets, etc.) so you can ground the historical place in its current location.
  2. Decipher the map. Choose one of the buildings on the map and then use the map key from the first page of the volume to figure out what the different symbols, colors, notations, etc. mean. What sort of building is it? List as many of its features as you can.


In the rest of the class, you’re going to try to recreate a 3D model of a historical building. We’re going to be using Google SketchUp to do this. Much like ArcGIS, this is a fairly complex program with a lot of different features and capabilities. It can be a bit daunting to get started, so before we try to do anything let’s follow along with the following video to get a basic sense for the interface: Do not rush through this video - take your time and really get a feel for the program.

Putting It Together

Our goal is to use the information about place contained in the Sanborn maps to recreate a building from 1897 that is significant to the history of Northeastern University.

Group 1: Locate the building in the upper-right of the map labeled “YOUNG MENS CHRISTIAN ASS’N”.

Group 2: Locate the large-ish pink building labeled “E. J. W. MORSE CO”.

Both groups:

  1. In SketchUp, start a new project and save it.
  2. You’re going to try and geolocate your project in space. Follow Steps 1-7 on this page to do so:
  3. Import an image of your Sanborn map (see Slack channel)
  4. Use the Move, Rotate, and Scale tools to try and line up your Sanborn map on top of the geo-located Google imagery. This doesn’t have to be perfect, but you want it roughly the same scale. Hint: Try the View -> Face Style -> X-ray to “see through” the layer.
  5. Use the skills you developed in the video tutorial to try and build a model of your particular building using the information from the Sanborn map. It might help to jot down a list of all the features that the Sanborn map contains for that particular building (ex. number of floors, type of material, windows, etc.). Try and make your model as accurate as possible, but don’t worry if you can’t make it exactly the way you want.