ITHACA — An abandoned house at 401 Lake Street might have links to the past as it sits at the beginning of a historical trail that wove along the northern side of Fall Creek to Ithaca Falls.

With the building set to be demolished, an Ithaca College professor is working with students to digitally preserve the house with state-of-the-art 3-D laser scanning.

In the 1800s, visitors to Ithaca Falls would climb a trail on the northern side of the creek, opposite of the trail used today, that would go all the way to Triphammer Falls and Beebe Lake. The trail would start just after the bridge that is now the Lake Street bridge. Past the bridge on the right was a structure marking the entrance to the trail, which was sometimes referred to as a tollbooth or carriage stop.

Going into the project, professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers thought there could be remnants of the 19th-century building in the house that stands today. Last week, Rogers along with two students began using laser scanners to make a 3-D model of the building, inside and out. When he and his team are finished, the image will be kept with Historic Ithaca.

Irregular wall thicknesses and beam structures could be clues that the home is older than it appears. So far, nothing like that has been found.

“We did a walkthrough last week and I didn’t see anything visibly that showed the original house was still here unfortunately, but we’re going to scan anyway just to preserve what’s here, then we can look at the scan more closely,” Rogers said.

Circa 1873 photo of the entrance to Ithaca Falls north trail. Provided by Bill Hecht.

The small white house at 401 Lake St. dates back to the early 1900s and has a nearly clear view of Ithaca Falls, though there is quite a bit of growth around the house even in winter. The house has been vacant for a number of years and was seized by the county after the previous owner stopped paying taxes.

Last year, there was a lot of debate about what to do with the house. One option was to put the house up for sale, and the other was to demolish it and add the space to the Ithaca Falls Natural Area. Ithaca Common Council voted in favor of the latter.

Point cloud image of 401 Lake Street in Ithaca. Michael “Bodhi” Rogers/Provided Photo
Point cloud image of 401 Lake Street in Ithaca. Michael “Bodhi” Rogers/Provided Photo

Rogers, who lives a couple blocks away with his wife, followed the debate and when he heard the home was going to be demolished, he offered to digitally preserve the house.

Rogers is a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Ithaca College and he’s also an archaeologist. For the past 20 years, he has done below-ground imaging using radar and magnetometry at archeological sites. A few years ago, Rogers worked on a three-institution collaboration project in Cyprus, where they looked at the Late Bronze Age, about 3,000 years ago.

For the project in Cyprus, Rogers and the team surveyed a 25-acre area to map the remaining city walls and understand the layout of the city and “see how people express power through urban design,” he said in an interview with the American Physical Society.

Though Rogers still does some below-ground imaging, 3-D digital imaging has been the “hotter” research lately. Last summer, Rogers and four students traveled to County Meath, Ireland, to map Trim Castle, which was built in the 12th century. Rogers and students have also used the technology to preserve President Abraham Lincoln’s cottage and other historic sites from the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars, including Old Fort Johnson, Fort Klock and Fort Hardy.

Scanning sites like Trim Castle or the house on Lake Street in 3-D are a way to preserve their history. Rogers said ISIS blowing up historical sites in the Middle East or natural disasters are reminders that things don’t last. Having historic structures digitally preserved means that it will make them available in the future, Rogers said. Researchers and preservationists can use the 3-D laser scans to study the structures in detail later. The technology also opens the door for virtual tours.

“It opens up a new opportunity to go back into the past in a way that is otherwise challenging,” Rogers said.

Rogers is working with two students — Harrison Kesel, a junior physics major, and Ryan Bouricious, a senior physics major.

The instruments Rogers, Kesel and Bouricious were using send out a laser beam that bounces off all the objects in the room and records their location. They take readngs every five millimeters so they get a fully digital record of the house. The scan will capture everything down to the leaves on the floor and the peeling paint of the ceiling.

From left, Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, Harrison Kesel and Ryan Bouricious. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
From left, Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, Harrison Kesel and Ryan Bouricious. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Ithaca’s natural beauty has been a draw for tourists for over 150 years. Ithaca Falls, close to the city center, was sometimes referred to as a “Niagara in miniature.”

Though there is no trail there now, guidebooks from the 1800s describe in detail a trail that wove along the north side of Fall Creek.

To reach the gorge, Charles Thurber wrote in his book published in 1887, visitors followed Aurora Street north and crossed a bridge on Auburn Road. This would be the Lake Street bridge today. At this point, visitors would get their first glimpse “of the finest cascade of all, the Ithaca Fall.”

Thurber writes that it used to be impossible to get into the gorge without a rope and ladder, but he said 20 years prior to publishing, a secure path was hewn from the rock along the northern wall. Visitors could enter the path through a tollgate just beyond the bridge and begin a “steep and torturous” ascent, but in a couple turns the hiker would find a shady nook, called “The Rest” where the “glory of the grand amphitheatre” is fully visible.

Across the way was described as a “manufacturing suburb.” By the mid-1800s, there were saw mills, gristmills, paper mills, flour mills, plaster mills, foundries, a pottery and cooperate on the south side of the gorge that drew power from water that flowed down a raceway or sluice. But despite the northern trail and mills on the southern side, many people still chose to travel on the south side, according to Frank Wigglesworth Clarke who published a local guidebook in 1869.

From “The Rest,” the path winds back and forth on the “naked face of the vertical cliff, by steep ascents and dangerous looking stone stairways to the summit of the ‘Palisades,’” Thurber wrote.

Both Thurber and Clarke describe the north trail as having several stops to pause and look out at Ithaca Falls. As travelers would continue along the trail, they would find a stone staircase with about 20 stairs that would take them up close to Ithaca Falls, so close they could throw their foot into the rushing water. Just past this area, there was even a stand where “lighter refreshments are kept” and people would picnic, Clarke wrote.

Today, the northern trail has faded away along with the old factories. All that remains are ruins of a mill foundation and raceways. The house at 401 Lake St. will be demolished and turned into more natural area. The house will be digitally preserved even if no remnants of the old entrance house are not found.

The weather last week slowed Rogers, Kesel and Bouricious, who can only work with one camera when temperatures dip below freezing. On Friday, Rogers said they were only able to get to outside scans complete. They plan to finish work when the snow melts.

Even if the house on Lake Street turns out to not have any historical significance, Rogers said the project has at least established that he is here, and the technology is available for other potential projects in the city.

Historical sources referenced in this article: “In and out of Ithaca : a description of the village, the surrounding scenery and Cornell University” by Charles Thurber; “The Architectural Heritage of Tompkins County” by Richard Corth, Lynn Cunningham Truame, Carol Kammen and Fred Muratori; “Views around Ithaca : being a description of the waterfalls and ravines of this remarkable locality” by Frank Wigglesworth Clarke. 

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.