If the walls of 25 Beacon Street could talk, what would they say?
Unitarian Universalists will find out when a time capsule, buried in the cornerstone when the Unitarian headquarters was built in 1926, is opened early next year. The rectangular copper box was unearthed in late November, after a three-day excavation into its brick-and-granite repository.
Leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association knew the box was there, and decided to find it before the UUA sells its historic headquarters and moves across Boston to 24 Farnsworth Street. Construction is underway inside the new headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District, which the UUA expects to move into in May.
A small item in the June 3, 1926, edition of The Christian Register, the American Unitarian Association’s newspaper, reported the entombment of the time capsule at the time that the cornerstone was laid. According to that story, the sealed copper box contained “reports and records of denominational activities, copies of each of the church journals, and other documents.”
A photo of the event shows a large crowd gathered on Beacon Street for the laying of the cornerstone. AUA President Samuel Atkins Eliot II wielded a silver trowel engraved for the occasion. Words on the trowel say that it was used in “laying the cornerstone of the new building erected for the American Unitarian Association” on May 25, 1926. That date was chosen because it was 101 years to the day after the founding of the AUA.
The top of the copper time capsule was also engraved. It reads:
To the Glory of God and the Welfare of Man
On the 25th day of May, 1926, this box with its contents was placed in the corner stone of a building situate [sic] on Beacon Street, Boston, adjoining the State House grounds. Erected by the American Unitarian Association, for its own use and that of kindred societies.
Beneath those words are the names of Eliot, AUA Administrative Vice President Louis C. Cornish, Secretary Parker E. Marran, and Treasurer Henry H. Fuller.
The photo of the cornerstone ceremony gave today’s UUA leadership some clues about where to look for the buried box.
The UUA asked contractor Michael Gilberg to hunt for the time capsule. Gilberg, who runs the firm Quality Construction and Renovations in Reading, Mass., studied the photo to determine whether to excavate from the first floor of 25 Beacon St. or from the basement. He retained a company with a ground-penetrating radar machine, usually used to locate copper pipes. The machine found a copper object right along the first floor line, in the front corner of 25 Beacon St., inside what is now the UUA Bookstore.
For three days over two consecutive weekends in late November, Gilberg and his crew drilled into the 18-inch-thick front wall of 25 Beacon St. First they cut away sections of a wooden cabinet, and then they drilled into layers of brick and granite bisected by heating pipes and electrical cables. “We went through 14 drill bits,” Gilberg said.
While drilling with the 14th, a fragment of copper whirled up from the drill bit. Gilberg immediately stopped drilling, and the crew worked to chip the box out.
Drilling left a small hole in the top, large enough to poke a finger in to feel a bit of 87-year-old newspaper. Gilberg believes the box, which measures approximately 12 inches by 6 inches by 8 inches, is made of 20-gauge copper. He is currently investigating ways to open it.
The box will be opened on February 21 at a special ceremony called the Beacon Benediction, a farewell to 25 Beacon St., which will include a chapel service and reception.
The Rev. Terry Sweetser, the UUA’s vice president for Stewardship and Development, who led the efforts to excavate the time capsule, said the opened box will move to the new UUA headquarters at 24 Farnsworth St. “It will be part of the new Heritage and Vision Center,” he said, referring to an interactive museum space being created on the first and second floors of the new headquarters.
Sweetser said he hopes that UUA leaders will take time during their first year in the new building to assemble a new time capsule for 24 Farnsworth St. “It can be retrieved when we move on from there,” Sweetser said, adding, “I suggest we make it easier to retrieve than our forebears did.”
What would you suggest a new UUA time capsule contain? Please add your suggestion in the comments below, or send them by email to world [at] uua [dot] org. Your response might be included in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World magazine.
This article appeared in abridged form in UU World (Spring 2014), pages 64-65. Photograph (above): Contractor Michael Gilberg unearthed a time capsule in a sealed copper box from the walls of 25 Beacon St. that was sealed there in 1926 by leaders of the American Unitarian Association (Kenneth Sutton). including a slide show of photographs.
- Slide show: 25 Beacon St. time capsule. Photos of the placement and recovery of the time capsule at 25 Beacon St. (flickr.com)
- Suggest an item for a new time capsule. If you have a suggestion for what a new UUA time capsule should contain, please add it to the comments below or send them by email to world [at] uua [dot] org.
- Time capsule slide show