Time capsule discovered during church demolition

This copper box, 10 inches long by 8 inches wide by 8 inches tall, was discovered on a construction site in Berkeley last week. Photo: Bill Schrader Jr.

This sealed copper box, 10 inches long by 8 inches wide by 8 inches tall, was discovered at a construction site in Berkeley last week. Photo: Bill Schrader Jr.

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part story. Read Part 2, about the time capsule’s contents here.]

A construction crew taking its first steps to prepare an old community church for demolition discovered a time capsule from 1948 hidden inside the wall behind the church cornerstone last week.

The sealed copper box initially stumped its finders, said Scott Allen, site superintendent at 2024 Durant Ave., the location where a new apartment housing development called The Durant is slated to be built.

Last Monday morning, Jan. 13, at about 11 o’clock, Allen said the crew was just beginning work on the first day of the project to demolish the old church, Durant Avenue Presbyterian. Developer Bill Schrader Jr. had given firm instructions to remove the church cornerstone, which includes the building’s name and construction date, to save the granite marker for inclusion on the new project site.

“We wanted to get that out and protect it and keep it safe so we didn’t have any complications later,” said Allen, who works for Sacramento-based Brown Construction. “When we removed it, there was a copper box on the back. We went to knock it off, or pull it off, and it wouldn’t move.”

At first, everyone was perplexed. The box was soldered shut, and had no visible damage.

Allen said no one was really sure what the box was or what to do with it, when he suddenly remembered he’d seen something similar once before during a demolition project in New Zealand. Allen said a time capsule had been found on the back of that building’s cornerstone. But he said he hadn’t seen anything like it stateside during his 12 years in construction.

He told the group what he thought, and there was an immediate reaction.

“Everybody was excited — from myself to Bill Schrader to the building inspector to the guys, the demolition crew that was there,” said Allen. “Most of these people had never seen this before. It came as a shock to most of them.”

Removing the name plate for the church was the first step in the process. Photo: Scott Allen

Removing the name plate for the church, to the left of the doorway, was the first step in the process. Photo: Scott Allen

Once the realization about the purpose of the box set in, curiosity wasn’t far behind.

“Half the people wanted to open it and ease their curiosity, but when we discussed that this was done many years ago for all to see, not just us, and it still belongs to the church in my opinion, we decided to return it to the property owner to determine the course,” he said.

Allen said the box, which was later measured to be 10 inches long by 8 inches wide by 8 inches tall, wasn’t very heavy. He resisted the urge to shake it or otherwise try to figure out its contents.

“It didn’t feel like much more than paper or cloth or light material was inside,” he said. “We treated it with kid gloves.”

Allen said the New Zealand time capsule had contained simple historical items, like newspaper articles from the early 1950s and a note in English and Maori that explained how the building had been developed and constructed.

Demolition is scheduled to continue through the week. Photo: Scott Allen

Demolition is scheduled to continue through the week. Photo: Scott Allen

He said he expected to find similar types of records in the time capsule found in Berkeley.

But the element of suspense remains.

“Everyone’s dying to know what’s inside,” he said.

As of late last week, the roof and second-story walls had been removed from the old church, with demolition expected to continue through this week.

To learn what’s inside the time capsule, come back to Berkeleyside on Wednesday for photographs, descriptions and more detail about the church’s history, as well as how the developer plans to carry some of that history forward at The Durant. Think you know what’s inside? Weigh in using the comments section below. 

Berkeley time capsule contents unveiled: historic bible, anti-liquor pamphlets, more (01.22.14)
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)
‘The Durant’ apartments win approval from City Council (06.27.13)
Berkeley zoning board approves 78-unit Durant (03.15.13)
Decision on project at Durant, Channing delayed (03.04.13)
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley (02.07.13)

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  • serkes

    How exciting!

    1948 was not that long ago … might be someone around who remembers hearing about it

    Love to see the photos and hear the story


  • Bill N

    A splendid year!

  • Chris in Berkeley
  • serkes

    My guesses – in addition to religious objects, a church membership roster and photos or microfilm of the church history – perhaps a charter or deed.


  • The Deer

    I can’t wait to see what’s in it!

  • Truth Sayer

    This guy stated that” he hadn’t seen anything like it stateside during his 12 years in construction.” I beg to differ with him as they are in the cornerstone of many U.S buildings built in the 1800-1900. Truth be told, its commonplace to find them under old large churches, post offices, civic centers, city halls, and other large buildings. As, many large building and churches in the U.S. has a a corner stone in which the time capsule is under it; in a hollow portion of the bottom of the corner stone or in the in the ground beneath it. The cornerstone can be identified by the inscription on the stone. Most often, these time capsules contain old papers (news papers, letters from school children, dedication of the church/building, etc), artifacts that were invented during that period (Pez dispensers, ink pens; and other small items. My only point is that the contents in the time capsule may be a mystery, not that time capsules were unusual in the U.S — Because they are not not.

  • MJ Frog
  • emraguso

    I was simply saying he personally had not seen it before other than the example he gave. It doesn’t sound like it’s exceedingly common, but it certainly does come up in older buildings. More details and context coming in tomorrow’s story. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this too! I’ve been learning quite a bit, and enjoying it!

  • Truth Sayer

    This church was demolished by a Demolition friend of mine. It is odd, but I talked to him today before reading this article. He informed me that It had a time capsule; which was taken out today with the cornerstone. During our conversations, he stated that they were commonplace and that historians responsible for preserving these items are aware of their existence; and he has uncovered many while in the demolition business. This church was built in 1901; and the items found should also be interesting.


  • Garen

    Kudos to the developer and demo guys.

  • Chris J

    Frankly, I’d leave it unopened and save it for future generations. Might be more interesting to someone from 2114 than now,

  • Rachel

    Keep up the good work Scott Allen. I can’t wait to hear more about the story.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I agree. I say open it in 2048. A 65-year-old time capsule won’t be nearly as interesting as a 100-year-old one.

  • Alina

    still-good twinkies!

  • emraguso

    We’ve posted the update about the time capsule’s contents, as well as a request for suggestions about what to include in the time capsule when it goes into the new building. More here: http://bit.ly/1jBuaT3

  • Truth Sayer

    I understand. As, his experience is in construction projects. Most often, they are found by those in demolition of building.

  • Truth Sayer

    You are correct, as most churches would have a dedication or charter of the building; and a copy would likely be in the time capsule.