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Finding history in an old box
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U of M officials opened a 95-year old time capsule Wednesday, and among the contents were sketches of the university campus created by architect Cass Gilbert. (MPR Photo/Toni Randolph)
Officials from the University of Minnesota opened a nearly century-old time capsule. It was found during construction of the school's new health sciences building.

St. Paul, Minn. — The time capsule was actually a copper box about the size of a safe deposit box. It was soldered shut and had to be cut open.

When the contents were revealed, the first thing U officials saw were newspapers from Sept. 4 and 5, 1911. The major headlines of the day: "State fair opens in all day rain" and "Sewer fails when downpour comes."

That brought laughter from the few dozen university officials who'd gathered in the lobby of the new Molecular and Cellular Biology building on Washington Ave.

Construction crews found the box last fall when they were putting the finishing touches on the building. They'd been looking for it ever since they tore down Jackson Hall -- the old Institute of Anatomy -- a few years ago to make room for the new building.

The time capsule contained a letter that helped explain other items found in the box. Frank Cerra, the senior vice president for health sciences at the U, read it out loud.

"To the person who shall open this box deposited in the cornerstone of the institute of anatomy, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1911. Certain articles have been placed in this box for the purpose of preserving some local bits of university history for the use of future generations," Cerra read.

The letter goes on to talk about the cost of building the old facility -- about a half million dollars -- and how the university secured money from the Legislature for construction, over the course of 16 years, starting in 1895.

Some of the most precious items in the time capsule were drawings by St. Paul architect Cass Gilbert. One hundred years ago, he was well known for designing the brand new Minnesota State Capitol building. The drawings in the box were plans for the university campus. Much of the work never became reality, but Cerra says the drawings are very impressive.

"Those are absolutely priceless, and I think will be a wonderful part of the university and the academic health center's archives," Cerra said.

The box also contained bulletins about the various programs the university offered in 1911, reports from the Board of Regents and notes from a meeting in 1908 that discussed unifying medical teaching in Minnesota. Dr. William J. Mayo was among the speakers on the agenda of that meeting.

In addition, there were several books from the Masons, a fraternal organization. Cerra says that impressed him as well, by the way the books connect spirituality with anatomy.

"All of that kind of went away in the rest of the 20th century, and we're now just kind of recapturing as the values of the profession again," Cerra said.

The contents of the time capsule were a surprise to everyone gathered at the unveiling, but one item would have even been a surprise to those who put the original capsule together. It was a small book, wrapped in a silk covering, called "At the Feet of the Master."

According to a note in the book, it was apparently slipped in by the wife of Thomas Lee without his knowledge. Lee was the chairman of the department of anatomy in 1911 and put the time capsule together.

The contents of the time capsule will be shipped off to the university archives and preservationists -- but not all of them. The U is putting together a new time capsule to include in the cornerstone of the newly-constructed Jackson Hall. And U officials want to include some of the items from 1911.

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