Elkins Park synagogue joins special preservation effort

Pete Aiston of DJS Associates sets up a digital scanning device at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park.
Pete Aiston of DJS Associates sets up a digital scanning device at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 16, 2012

A pyramid of reflected laser beams is hardly what Frank Lloyd Wright had in mind when he referred to the Elkins Park synagogue he designed as an incandescent vision of Mount Sinai.

But the historic Beth Sholom Congregation building is being re-created as hundreds of thousands - if not a million - points of light, all in an effort to preserve it.

The 1959 structure of aluminum, glass, and steel is part of a global initiative to create high-definition 3D digital models of important historic sites. The result is an archive that can help ensure that disasters like Hurricane Sandy don't permanently blow or wash away history.

"These places are so important to humanity," said Elizabeth Lee, director of operations at CyArk, a California nonprofit founded to lead the effort. "They help tell our story."

The project's goal is to create models of 500 historic sites around the world. The digital re-creation is then given to site owners and made available to the public on CyArk's website along with 3D virtual tours, site history, and educational materials.

When it is completed, the Beth Sholom model will join Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Chichén Itza in Mexico, and Pompeii in Italy as one of 70 sites so far to be digitally replicated.

Other area sites such as Independence Hall are prime candidates for CyArk's list, which is "evolving," Lee said.

Beth Sholom was added as a result of the efforts of Steven M. Schorr, a synagogue member.

Schorr, an engineer and president of DJS Associates of Abington, regularly uses the high-definition laser scanning technology pioneered by Ben Kacyra, a cofounder of CyArk. Schorr heard about CyArk's mission through his participation in technology conventions and seminars.

Beth Sholom, the only synagogue Wright designed, seemed a perfect candidate, Schorr said. CyArk officials agreed.

DJS offered to donate its services to help create the model. The firm, which specializes in forensic analysis, was part of the investigation into the death of NBC News anchor Jessica Savitch in a 1983 car accident in Bucks County, Schorr said.

The portable 3D scanning technology DJS now uses was developed in the mid-1990s by Kacyra and Jerry Dimsdale as part of their company, Cyra Technologies. When the firm was acquired by Leica Geosystems in 2001, Kacyra and his wife, Barbara, cofounded the nonprofit with the goal of using the technology to preserve historic sites.

Their motivation was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two statues carved into a cliff in Afghanistan during the sixth century. The Taliban blew them up in 2001.

"There was no record of these magnificent 180-foot tall statues that had survived for centuries," Lee said.

On Monday, DJS engineers began creating a digital 3D model of Beth Sholom.

They used two high-definition scanners perched on tripods to capture the outside and inside of the building.

The scanners shoot a beam of light that hits a surface and then bounces back to the scanner. That process records the distance, speed, and angle that the light travels, as well as when it hits and returns. The action places a point in space. When the millions of points are combined, a 3D rendering is created.

The project comes at an interesting time for Beth Sholom.

During the high-speed winds of Hurricane Sandy, a tree fell on the synagogue's lower roof, destroying a three-panel aluminum segment of the building.

One panel was found on the ground below, "the others were likely shattered," said Harvey Friedrich, the synagogue's executive director.

The congregation will soon begin a repair process that stays true to original finishes, materials, and design.

A 3D digital image will be invaluable, Friedrich said.

"We are stewards of a building that is like none other in the world," Friedrich said. "This will put us light-years ahead of just blueprints."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.