Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, July 11, 2001
Construction on Quad hits upon long-forgotten time capsule


Construction worker Manuel Astorga thought maybe he'd come across an old book that had fallen into a wall when his tool hit something soft as he was chipping away at concrete inside Building 160, now under reconstruction.

In fact, Astorga had discovered a forgotten time capsule Jane Stanford herself had tucked inside the building's cornerstone more than a century ago.

The 113-year-old sandstone building, built on the north side of the Quad, was the first of the Outer Quadrangle buildings constructed and originally held a library. The building was remodeled to house the law school in 1949 and most recently held the Department of Political Science. Once reconstructed, it will house the Wallenberg Global Learning Center.

On June 25, Astorga worked for more than half an hour to chip away the old brick and grout that surrounded what turned out to be a copper box. The 12-inch long, 6-inch high box was oxidized and covered with dust but intact, except for a couple of punctures made by Astorga's tools. After Astorga retrieved the box, it went to construction project manager Laura Goldstein, who called campus archaeologist Laura Jones, who hurried over to the construction site.

After inspecting the box, Jones turned it over to campus archivist Margaret Kimball, who peered inside the heavy box with a flashlight. Nothing was visible through the small holes, except what looked to her like string and the spine of a book.

Kimball then looked around in Jane Stanford's papers, where she had more luck. She found documentation that described how Jane Stanford put the time capsule inside the cornerstone of the Thomas Welton Stanford Library, named for her husband Leland's youngest brother, on Nov. 2, 1898.

Kimball also found a list of the capsule's contents, which were chosen by Jane Stanford -- but Kimball isn't telling anyone what's inside. Although it hasn't been determined when the capsule might be opened, describing the contents now would ruin the fun, she said.

The simple copper box, which is welded shut and sags a little, like a fallen soufflé, is a sharp contrast to the high-tech stainless-steel capsule Kimball helped lay under a paver in the Main Quad in 1991 to mark the university's centennial.

That centennial capsule was purchased from an Idaho company that patented what it calls a "Vapor Phase Deacidification process," which replaces oxygen in the capsule with a mixture of hexamethylene tetramine and argon gas. The company guarantees the capsule against fire and flood for 500 years -- although Kimball said it seemed pretty unlikely that the manufacturer would be called upon to make good on the promise.

The capsule's contents, which were packed by library conservators and wrapped in acid-free paper, include then university President Donald Kennedy's 1991 appointment book, a copy of an audit with statistics describing Stanford's recycling and water conservation efforts and fuel consumption, a mounted eucalyptus longhorn borer, a button proclaiming "100 Years of Staff Diversity" and a bit of shell from an egg tossed at then Gov. Pete Wilson during a centennial address by protesters unhappy with his stand on gay rights issues.

Administrators also set a firm date when the time capsule was to be opened: the university's bicentennial in 2091. Jane Stanford left no directives about when the 1898 library capsule should be opened, Kimball said.

Unlike the copper time capsule that the Stanfords placed beneath the well-marked university cornerstone at what is now Building 60 in 1887, the recently found capsule wasn't indicated by markings on Building 160's exterior that would point to its existence. "Or those markings have been erased," Kimball said.

"But the time capsule clearly was meant to be found at some point."

There's some irony in the fact that a copper box with a message from the past should unexpectedly surface on a campus where a hundred years' worth of time capsules lie neatly labeled and dated under class plaques along the Main Quad.

Class presidents recently have begun to give Kimball lists of the contents of the yearly capsules, although the archivist is lukewarm about the idea of items left for future generations being heavily cross-referenced.

She likes "inadvertent time capsules," like the decades-old woman's silk pump found in a Row House during renovations.

As for the contents of the old copper box found in Building 160, Kimball will say only this: "They are truly representative of the time -- and of Jane's feeling for the university."

The recently discovered time capsule. photo: James Robinson