3-D scans of Sonoma mission aim to preserve structure's original design

Cheryl Laven, left, and Michael Laven, both of Seal Beach, visit the Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, Monday, August 5, 2013. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)



Colleen Jackson made the drive from Sacramento to Sonoma this week to give her 12-year-old son, Cody, a lesson in California history at the Mission San Francisco Solano.

Generations have made similar treks to the quaint Franciscan outpost a stone's throw from Sonoma's plaza. The odds of that legacy enduring are about to improve, thanks to cutting-edge laser scanning technology and an Oakland visionary who wants to preserve the world's significant historical sites.

Oakland-based nonprofit CyArk and 3D Virtual Design Technology, which has offices in Sonoma, are partnering to conduct 3-D laser scans of all 21 missions along the El Camino Real de California, as well as four presidios and three pueblos.

The Sonoma mission will be the fifth to be scanned. Once the work is completed, possibly later this month, the public will have a very detailed rendering of the mission that can be used if ever it falls victim to decay, natural disaster or other calamity.

No original architectural drawings exist of the mission, which was consecrated by Father Jose Altimira in 1823. But with the data created using the laser scans and high-resolution photos, generations to come will have easy and complete access to the structure's design, down to the millimeter.

"I'm sure it will come in handy for us," said Breck Parkman, a senior archaeologist with California State Parks.

CyArk was founded in 2003 by Iraqi-born San Francisco engineer Ben Kacyra and his wife, Barbara, who have made it their mission to digitally document world heritage sites and to archive the data. Kacyra was inspired to act in 2001 after Afghan fighters reduced Bamiyan Buddhas, including one that was 18 stories high and stood for 1,500 years, to rubble.

Kacyra helped invent a portable 3-D laser scanning device that is now being employed to capture the data.

3D Virtual Design Technology has one of the devices, which cost between $30,000 and $100,000, and will be using it to scan the Sonoma mission, said CyArk intern Makenna Murray.

The technology appears deceptively simple when in use, looking like little more than a glorified camera mounted on a tripod. A box containing the laser rotates full-circle to capture everything in the beam's path. Murray said the green laser isn't harmful; a person could walk through it and not be aware of it.

She said the laser will be placed inside and around the mission's exterior to document every nook and cranny. The work, tentatively set for Aug. 30, should take no more than a day.

CyArk already has scanned missions Dolores, San Juan Bautista, Carmel and San Luis Rey along the El Camino Real. Father Junipero Serra generally is credited with founding the footpath in the late 1700s that later developed into the "Royal Highway," connecting 21 missions along a 700-mile stretch of road in California.

Several of the historical structures along the route, which runs parallel to the San Andreas Fault, have been damaged or destroyed by earthquakes.

"We can preserve the nitty-gritty of the historical site that you can't quite get from two-dimensional figures," Murray said.

At the Sonoma mission this week, former Santa Rosa resident Pete Velles toured the chapel with family. Velles had been to the site before, but none of his family had.

"This is history for my grandkids, and my grandkids' kids," said Velles, who now lives in New Jersey.

Murray said the scanning work is estimated to cost as much as $15,000. 3D Virtual Design Technology is donating some services, which brought the tab down by about $10,000, she said.

CyArk is hoping the Sonoma community will help out with donations. The nonprofit also is partnering with students at Sonoma Valley High School's newly implemented Engineering Design Technology program to help and observe the work in progress.

More information can be found at

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.)