Jennifer Brooks
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Months after wrecking crews reduced the old St. Andrew’s to rubble, a ghostly image of the former church glowed to life inside the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Don Myhre, a sculptor and head of the college’s 3-D shop, rotated the image for a better view of the ornate brickwork and the bell tower that had soared over St. Paul’s Warrendale neighborhood for more than a century.

When the last appeals failed, in the final days before demolition, Myhre moved in with laser scanners that are sensitive enough to map brush strokes on a canvas and precise enough to count every brick on a wall. He scanned the building, inside and out, and gathered enough data to ensure that St. Andrew’s would live on in more than just memory.

“The question was, ‘Is there any way we can capture these things before they’re gone?’ ” Myhre said, picking up a brush as a laser cutter in one corner of the 3-D shop whirred to a stop. Gently, he brushed gypsum dust away to reveal a crisp white replica of the front of the old church, scaled down to the size of a hymnal and reproduced right down to the window moldings.

MCAD’s 3-D shop — the intersection of high art and high tech — is filled with pieces of history that Myhre and his wife, Christina Ridolfi, have captured in three dimensions.

There are dollhouse-sized replicas of century-old cabins on Isle Royale. They’ve reproduced rooms from the old asylum in Fergus Falls so tiny you can balance them on your palm and so detailed you can trace the carvings on the fireplaces and peek inside the bathtubs. A wooden shadow box preserves a 3-D printout of a theater stage, long after the production ended.

They’ve scanned artwork at the Minneapolis Institute of Art to give visually impaired visitors a chance to appreciate the intricate carving on a desk or the smooth lines of a sculpture. The museum’s 3-D scans, posted on sites such as Sketchfab, let the public zoom into a van Gogh painting or count the scales on the tiny snake, curled around a tiny turtle, in a netsuke carving from Japan.

“For the public, it’s as close as you’ll ever come to holding a 2,000-year-old Chinese vessel in your hands,” said Dan Dennehy, senior photographer and head of visual resources at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Thousands of people have logged on to study the museum’s growing 3-D collection at sketchfab.com/artsmia.

The technology, he said, has become a powerful tool for conservation.

“Some wondered, ‘Will people come to the museum if they can get the experience online?’ ” Dennehy said. But as fascinating and useful as the new technology can be, “it can’t replace the experience of standing before a masterpiece.”

Myhre and Ridolfi have used the technology to replicate a few masterpieces, though. At Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s former home and school in southwestern Wisconsin, they scanned and re-created a weather-beaten sculpture so the original could be moved to a more protected site without changing the view Wright wanted for the grounds.

Last summer, they crossed Lake Superior to scan some of the 100 or so historic structures — from decaying cabins to sturdy lighthouses — at Isle Royale National Park. To the delight of park archaeologists, a structure that might take days to map with measuring tape and a compass could be 3-D scanned in about an hour.

“It’s just a perfect way to capture something in a moment in time,” said Seth DePasquale, an archaeologist and cultural resource manager for the National Park Service. The scans not only record everything from nail holes in the wall to ax marks on the logs, they record nearby trees and landscape as well.

The Park Service preserves as many of the structures as it can, but not all of them — particularly cabins in remote wilderness areas — can be saved or need to be saved.

“When you get to a point where you accept on paper that you may not be able to preserve a cabin … you have to start to look at documentation options,” DePasquale said. “There’s quite a few buildings out there that are just falling apart in decay and have just passed the point of no return.”

Most of their work is a volunteer effort, Myhre said. They protect what they can and they preserve the memory of the structures that can’t be saved. They donated the scans of the former St. Andrew’s to the Twin Cities German Immersion School, the charter school that owned the property and decided this year to demolish the structure to make way for more classrooms.

Myhre and Ridolfi traveled to Fergus Falls, where preservationists and redevelopers argued over what to do with the fortresslike campus of the former state mental hospital. They drove up to Staples when they heard about a vaudeville-era opera house, tucked away above a downtown department store.

The best part of bringing futuristic technology to historic buildings is that “you get to hear these great stories,” Myhre said. “You feel the passion people have for these sites.”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

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