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More work needed to preserve Hale Memorial Church time capsule

Time Capsule Opening.jpg
Collin Schopp
KDB Group President and CEO Greg Birkland, left, and professional paper conservator Ana Lyra remove the lid of a time capsule buried 122 years ago at Hale Memorial Church.

After an event Tuesday to open the time capsule discovered in a cornerstone of the Hale Memorial Church, there’s still a lot of work to do before it's known exactly what’s inside.

The church was purchased by Kim Blickenstaff and KDB Group in 2021. A series of attempts to restore and renovate the building ran into issues with an unstable roof, holes in the floor and vandalism. Eventually, the group decided on demolishing the building and developing an outdoor performance venue.

KDB Group President and CEO Greg Birkland obtained the time capsule when it was found about four days into the church being taken down by JIMAX Demolition. The 15-pound copper box was found inside a cornerstone of the building, nestled into a block with the dates 1868 and 1900 carved into it. The Hale Chapel was founded in 1868, and the time capsule was placed inside the block during its dedication as Hale Memorial Church in 1900. This means some of the items in the capsule could be as much as 150 years old.

Birkland said according to an article discovered by Chris Farris from the Peoria Public Library, there’s likely a Bible and documents from both the old chapel and new church in the box.

“You could see there was some heat damage to it, some water on the outside. But today as we opened it, we found out that the inside of it was phenomenal,” said Birkland. “It's all intact. And we have a great story to tell once we start going a little bit deeper inside the box.”

Around 50 people gathered at the Scottish Rite Theatre to view the opening of the 122-year-old capsule.

The process of opening the capsule took around 15 minutes. Birkland used a diamond-edged blade and a Dremel tool to cut through the seal. He sought advice on the process from Katherine Ridgway, a state archaeological conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Time Capsule Cutting.jpg
Collin Schopp
KDB Group President and CEO Greg Birkland (right) cuts through the seal on the Hale Memorial Church time capsule with a Dremel tool with a diamond tipped blade.

“We were really concerned, opening up this time capsule, with (it) being so old, that it could be full of mold, specifically, because there were two fires in that building,” said Birkland. “So, and then also lead, you know, I was cutting through lead today, we had HEPA filters on and also on the vacuum, too. So that way, we're, you know, protecting everyone around us.”

Birkland also had X-rays of the box taken by Dr. Miguel Ramirez, an orthopedic surgeon at OSF Orthopedics. The images found a void of a few inches at the top of the box, providing a safe place to cut without damaging anything inside.

Upon opening the box, professional paper conservator Ana Lyra took over. Fortunately, she didn’t find any mold, but she did find the contents wrapped in yellowed paper that will require a longer process in a humidity-controlled space to untangle.

TIme Capsule Opened.jpg
Collin Schopp
The opened Hale Memorial Church time capsule reveals yellowed paper that will require extra work in a climate controlled environment to unwrap.

“You need to relax the paper. The paper is made of fibers and the fibers needed to relax but gradually,” she said. “You have to put it in a temporary place that is not going to harm it and work the next day or two days.”

The work also will involve cleaning the copper shavings from the cutting with a small vacuum cleaner, and testing the acidity and brittleness of the paper.

“I’m not going to tell you what’s going to happen with the paper itself,” said Lyra. “Because the paper is going to tell me first.”

However, the initial images are promising. Though the building endured two fires, and the outside of the capsule shows some fire damage, the paper lying on top inside is clearly readable. A headline reads: “The Flying Roll” with smaller text below.

“I’m surprised, but when you see where it was, the stone protected that,” said Lyra. “So it was a very good thing that it was well protected.”

Hale Memorial Church Cornerstone.jpg
Collin Schopp
The cornerstone that protected the Hale Memorial Church time capsule from two fires and 122 years of weather.

Though he doesn’t know exactly what’s in the box yet, Birkland is pleased that there’s been definite progress for an interested public.

“We’re going to do it the right way, the proper way,” he said. “So that way, other generations, you know, they can see what we found today on Sep. 20. Today, like I said, is the anniversary date, that they put the time capsule in the cornerstone. And today is the anniversary date of opening it up.”

Birkland said updates on the contents of the time capsule will be posted here on the Scottish Rite Theatre website.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.