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Tampa’s historic Union Station is stable. 3D scans might keep it that way.

“We need to embrace modern technology to preserve our past,” said the head of a USF team of archaeologists and engineers.
Laura Harrison, director of USF’s Access 3D Lab, poses for a portrait with a 3D model of Tampa Union Station.
Laura Harrison, director of USF’s Access 3D Lab, poses for a portrait with a 3D model of Tampa Union Station. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 10
Updated Aug. 11

TAMPA ― A seven-person team of archaeologists and engineers from the University of South Florida performed a pro bono 3D scan of Tampa Union Station last month.

Using technology that provided minute detail of its every red brick, the scans furnished the most accurate picture yet of the century-old active train station’s condition.

The good news is that Union Station — designated a local and national historic landmark — is stable.

But that could change.

The city-owned Union Station is exposed to conditions that could negatively impact its stability. Distortions could happen at a slow pace over an extended period that could cause severe damage before being noticeable to the naked eye.

Of course, that’s true for all buildings, especially old ones.

So, the USF team is advocating that Tampa Bay’s historic building owners preserve the area’s heritage by working with educational institutions or private sector companies that can perform regular 3D scans of their structures.

“In a perfect world, it would be done annually,” said Laura Harrison, the team’s leader and director of USF’s Access 3D Lab. “There should be a regular plan of monitoring. We need to embrace modern technology to preserve our past.”

Extreme weather, traffic — especially from large trucks and neighboring highways — and nearby construction can add to the decline of a structure, Harrison said. Annual scans could be overlaid onto one another to show if bricks are cracking, walls are shifting or foundations are sinking.

“Our scans are accurate within two millimeters for the whole entire architectural environment,” she said. “That allows us to get millions, literally millions, of measurements for each brick. We can get 3D measurements of elements down to the finest detail.”

Gerald Galloway, a private sector engineer who worked with the scanning team as a USF masters student, hopes historic building owners take Harrison’s advice.

“Oftentimes, we don’t learn until it is too late that these buildings are not around forever,” Galloway said. “These scans protect the buildings from that too-late scenario.”

Laura Harrison,  director of USF’s Access 3D Lab, shows how to set up a 3D scanner at Tampa Union Station.
Laura Harrison, director of USF’s Access 3D Lab, shows how to set up a 3D scanner at Tampa Union Station. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The 3D scanning technology is already being used on historic landmarks throughout the area in advance of worst-case scenarios.

Downtown Tampa’s Jackson House was scanned in case the decrepit segregation-era rooming home for Black travelers cannot be saved. And Egmont Key’s lighthouse and other historic structures were scanned in case the island one day erodes away to nothing. Those historic structures can now live on virtually if they are lost.

Harrison said her proposal could prevent buildings from nearing unnecessary extinction. Structural changes could be dealt with before they reach a dangerous threshold.

Brandie Miklus, president of the Friends of Tampa Union Station nonprofit that advocates for the building’s preservation, is all aboard for scans on a regular basis.

“I would love that,” she said. “I think the whole board would. It would give us additional data — 21st century data — that can help us make better decisions for the station moving forward.”

Tampa Union Station is designated but a national and a local historic landmark.
Tampa Union Station is designated but a national and a local historic landmark. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Union Station, which opened in 1912, has been down the wrong track before.

It was shuttered in 1984 because the building was in such disrepair. Amtrack then instead used a prefabricated building on the site for ticket sales and a waiting room.

In 1991, the Tampa Union Station Preservation & Redevelopment Inc. was formed. The nonprofit purchased the historic building from CSX for $600,000, raised another $4 million for restorations and then donated it to the city. Union Station reopened in 1998.

The building still needs at least another $1 million in repairs, including new windows. And the abandoned baggage claim building will be turned into an events center through a $95,000 Hillsborough County historic preservation grant and another $55,000 in private donations.

The 3D scans can help with those restorations and renovations, Harrison said. “Architectural drawings don’t reveal the current state of preservation. They can use our three-dimensional model” for a better understanding of how to approach that work.

Members of a USF team show a 3D model of the building at Tampa Union Station.
Members of a USF team show a 3D model of the building at Tampa Union Station. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Steven Fernandez, a research associate with USF’s Urban and Regional Planning program and part of the team that scanned Union Station, said 3D scans of buildings are just the beginning. Sooner than later, he predicts, governments will scan entire neighborhoods.

“With high-detailed models, the city can better visualize coming developments, street scaping, plans for transportation networks,” he said. “We’re modernizing the urban planning process.”