April 12, 2023

Karen Lewis Awarded Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs Grant

The architecture professor will employ architectural technologies and archival research to examine the history of the Underground Railroad through the Ohio State campus.

Karen Lewis Awarded Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs Grant

Associate Professor of Architecture Karen Lewis has been named a 2023 recipient of a Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs (BETHA) Endowment grant in the amount of $52,900. BETHA grants support innovative projects that examine the relationship between science and technology and its impact on broader social and cultural issues.

Lewis’s proposal was for Uncovering the Underground Railroad: Scanning History through Architecture, a multidisciplinary investigation of the infrastructure and architecture of the Underground Railroad. Specifically, Lewis will lead the research to investigate the house at 1842 Neil Avenue, whose past as the Neil Family home is an undocumented but often cited station on the Underground Railroad.

Addressing the project’s research focus, methodology, and expected outcomes, Lewis writes:

Uncovering the Underground Railroad: Scanning History through Architecture is a multidisciplinary visualization project to explore the architecture of the Neil House…For over 60 years, newspapers and others claim underground tunnels, hidden passageways and secret rooms were used to conceal Black men and women escaping slavery. However, it is not clear if these passages were used to hide people, or the result of decades of architectural renovations. Using image scanning technologies, three-dimensional digital and physical models, and other architectural representations, this project seeks to forensically investigate and visualize the architecture and infrastructure of the Underground Railroad across OSU’s campus.

Initial research will include an architectural analysis of the Neil House from the time of its construction in 1856, through its renovation in 1935, to its present state owned by the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. Lewis and her team will also compare thermal heat mapping scans alongside archival campus maps to ascertain the existence of tunnels leading to the Olentangy River that are believed to have aided those escaping enslavement.

“Like Battelle's mission, this project translates technological and spatial discoveries into broader social and cultural conversations,” said Lewis. “Landing squarely within the realm of digital humanities, our project links history, archival research, digital technologies, and architecture visualizations into a rich research experience for faculty, students, and staff. We aim to animate a widespread and better informed public discussion about the Underground Railroad, and to use technology to untangle longstanding cultural myths about the men and women who courageously enacted their own escapes from enslavement.”

Lewis will serve as the lead investigator on the project, with support from co-investigators Dr. Hasan Jefferies, Department of History; Professor Tamar Chute, Ohio State University Archivist and Head of Archives; Chris Strasbaugh, Director of Learning Technologies at the College of Engineering; and Treavon Clark, GIS Technician at Planning, Architecture and Real Estate at The Ohio State University.

Image courtesy of Dominic Sonby and Elizabeth Rechin from Associate Professor of Architecture Karen Lewis's autumn 2022 studio.