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.]

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, 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

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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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...