Time Capsules in San Francisco

Franklin statue, Washington Square Park, 2009 photo by Wally Gobetz

San Francisco is no stranger to time capsules. One example can be found in Washington Square Park at the base of the Benjamin Franklin statue commissioned by nineteenth-century millionaire and temperance advocate Henry D. Cogswell. The materials placed there in 1879 by Cogswell included personal papers and a sampling of publications that are now housed at the California Historical Society. After the original contents were exhumed in 1979 by then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Fienstein, new materials replaced them for re-opening in 2079, including a pair of Levi’s jeans, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a bottle of wine (ironic, given Cogswells temperance stance), and a copy of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Sometimes a time capsule is forgotten and later re-discovered, as had been the case with a copper box filled with coins, photographs, newspaper clippings and other items that had been placed in the walls of San Francisco City Hall in 1913 by then-mayor Jim Rolph and found again in 1997 during renovation work. Selected contents from that collection are exhibited in City Hall’s South Light Court. A new time capsule was placed in City Hall in 2001 by then-mayor Willie Brown, containing a wide range of contents including one of the mayor’s hats, Rice a Roni, a bolt from the Golden Gate Bridge, a piece of the AIDS memorial quilt, a bottle of Anchor Steam beer, menus from the Fairmont and St. Francis hotels, and a video tape from 1997 of the opening of Mayor Rolph’s time capsule of 1913.

Sometimes time capsules themselves contain time capsules, as was discovered in 2001 when the cornerstone of the former Ohabai Shalome synagogue at 1881 Bush Street was opened. Items that had been placed in the cornerstone during the 1895 construction of the building included an earlier time capsule that had been created by a group of San Francisco Jews in 1865. Together, these contents were fashioned into an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum entitled “Hidden in the Walls”.

I’ve created a Google Map showing the location of time capsules in San Francisco. I imagine there are many that I’ve missed. Do you know of any that don’t appear on the map? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know about them.

For those who are interested, William E. Jarvis has done the only serious history to date of time capsules; and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia hosts the International Time Capsule Society.


Filed under California Historical Society

10 responses to “Time Capsules in San Francisco

  1. Gerard Koskovich

    Great post, Drew. One general observation to add: It was a frequent practice from the 19th century through the mid-20th century to include a time capsule of some sort when placing the cornerstone of major civic buildings both public and private. As a result, there are probably dozens of forgotten time capsules scattered around San Francisco.

    And here’s a specific — and explicitly activist — time capsule for your list: In the summer of 1990, a sealed copper box fashioned by queer artist Michael Brown was buried in the vacant lot next to the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, which at that time was located on Grove Street across from San Francisco City Hall.

    The time capsule was conceived in response to one of the opening salvos in the culture wars: The crackdown on federal funding for queer and queer-friendly artists. This was the moment when the NEA Four (Karen Finlay, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck) had been stripped of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; just one year earlier, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., had canceled a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective under pressure from Republicans in Congress.

    The time capsule contained works on paper submitted by local artists. The idea was to preserve the works from the rising tide of cultural violence and censorship — and to use them to send a message to the future about the dark times in which the artists and their friends were living.

    The capsule was interred at the end of funeral march of artists and activists. Overlooking the vacant lot during the ceremony was a huge “Unsafe” poster of Jesse Helms produced by Boy With Arms Akimbo. And Rodney O’Neal Austin did a special performance wearing only an American flag.

  2. sfdrew

    Gerard – thank you for your comments, and especially for your mention of Michael Brown’s 1990 project on Grove St. That’s a time capsule of which I had been unaware. I’ve now included it on the map that accompanies the post. If you happen to be aware of any content (e.g. media coverage, publicity, artist’s statement) about that project that has made it online, I’d be glad to provide a link for viewers using the time capsule map to click on for further background. Also, regarding your observation about time capsules in the cornerstones of 19th and early 20th century buildings – I love the thought of dozens of curated collections hidden (perhaps even forgotten) and scattered across the city. Furthermore, the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 is made that much more harrowing by the prospect of the loss of such collections.

  3. Susan Goldstein

    Hi Drew:

    In May 2009, I opened a time capsule that was unearthed at 252 Golden Gate, the former State Insurance Compensation Building that has been torn down to make way for a new PUC building. This 49 year old copper box and its contents were in excellent shape, mostly consisting of documents relating to the original building, photographs of the architects, and information about State Insurance Compensation and Progressive era labor legislation that created this organization. Maybe not the sexiest time capsule ever, but we had very little information about the original building.

  4. Rodney O'Neal Austin

    It’s me, Rodney. I just wanted to add that I also had a piece of visual art in the time capsule vault. It was an autographed photo of Mitizi Gaynor that she had sent me when I was nine years old. I thought it was a great representation of queer humor. When it was reviewed, they listed some of the art contributed and ended withthe description of my Mitzi photo and an exclamation mark! It was my first (but the not last) review ending with an exclamation mark. It was at this event that I first met Scarlet Harlot and by coincidence we both wore Red, White, and Blue. So we decided right then and there to stick together for photo ops. Those were such amazing times.

    • sfdrew

      Rodney – thank you for contributing your comment. Am I correct in imagining that you’re referring to the time capsule in the vacant lot next to 155 Grove St., to which Gerard Koskovich alluded in his earlier comment? It’s great to hear from one of the artists whose work is included in that time capsule. You had mentioned in your comment that the contents of that time capsule had been reviewed – if you happen to know where that review appeared, it’d be great to include mention of it here in the comments.

      • Rodney Austin

        Hey sfdrew,
        Yes, I have a copy of it in my giant press packet, I’ll dig it out and list it on here as soon as I get a chance.

  5. And on a lighter note, here’s Chuck Jones taking a peek into a cornerstone time capsule in one of his Warner Brother’s “Merrie Melodies” cartoons, “One Froggy Evening” (1955):

  6. Another time capsule spotting: In the lobby of the North Tower at the Davies Campus of California Pacific Medical Center (Castro and Duboce), a display case features the time capsule discovered when the third German Hospital building was demolished. On view is the copper box that formed the time capsule, along with a sampling of the contents — mainly photographs and documents related to the earlier history of the hospital.

  7. Hi Drew and all-
    I was pleased to see the comments of the time capsule we buried at the sf arts commission lot. Phillip Horivitz (RIP) and I unearthed it 5 years later and donated it and it’s contents to the SF library archives on the 6th floor. After Philips death I reviewed the contents for materials to use in his memorial. The time capsule is available to the public, so Rodney you can see your prized Mitzi photograph if you desire. Thanks for your history of time capsules.

  8. Pingback: Washington Square’s Benjamin Franklin | WanderArt

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