Corey Earle ’07 removes contents of the opened Thurston Hall cornerstone box in 2023

Campus Time Capsules Are Blasts from the Past

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From contemporary ephemera to a missive from Ezra himself, the historic containers are relics of an earlier Cornell

By Joe Wilensky

The Hill is replete with connections to the past, from stately architecture to numerous statues, portraits, and more. But over the course of the University’s history, Cornellians have also created more intentional messages to their future counterparts, by stashing material in time capsules and cornerstone boxes enclosed in building foundations.

Observes Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07: “Both time capsules and cornerstone boxes tell you something about what the people creating it thought was important for future generations to understand or preserve.”

The Klarman Hall time capsule is buried for a half-century’s internment, 2016
The Klarman Hall time capsule, enclosed for a half-century’s internment. (Cornell University)

What’s the difference between the two? A cornerstone box, Earle explains, is typically filled with ephemera and ceremoniously sealed during the building’s dedication—with no expectation that it will be opened as long as the structure stands.

A time capsule, on the other hand, has a specific “open by” date, with the contents selected to preserve a glimpse of contemporary life for future generations.

Arguably the University's most famous example of the former: at the 1873 cornerstone-laying ceremony for Sage Hall, Ezra Cornell noted that he’d placed a letter in its cornerstone box that “tells the reasons for the failure of the [University] experiment,” if it should ever fail.

For nearly 125 years, no one knew what the letter said. Many believed it was likely about the University’s ambitious coeducational experiment, as Sage was constructed as the first on-campus residence for women. But in 1997, during an extensive renovation, the box was found and opened.

In the letter, addressed “To the Coming man & woman,” Cornell wrote that “the principle [sic] danger ... to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty is that which may arise from sectarian strife.”

The Sage Hall cornerstone box—containing Ezra Cornell’s mystery letter—as found during construction in 1997
Sage’s cornerstone box as found in 1997. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Cornell continued: “From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their concience [sic] shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome …”

The box and its contents now reside in the University Archives.

A new box was placed in the Sage foundation in late 1997 with a collection of then-current Johnson School ephemera—including a Hewlett Packard calculator.

laying of the cornerstone of McGraw Hall on June 30, 1869
Guests in period finery observe the laying of McGraw Hall's cornerstone. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

While cornerstone boxes are known to exist in many older campus buildings, Earle says, the contents are often unknown, “partly because there isn’t always a record of the specific items that were deposited.”

One such box was found in the late 1980s when Roberts Hall was demolished, and another in March 2023 during the Thurston Hall expansion on the Engineering Quad.

Another, from the Statler Hall cornerstone laying in 1949, was returned to the University by a contractor’s family decades after the building was renovated.

The oldest may be the one that still resides within the cornerstone of McGraw Hall, which was laid during a ceremony as part of Cornell’s first Commencement in 1869.

In 2006, a forgotten box was found by masons replacing stonework atop the Baldwin Memorial Stairway, which connects the Delta Phi fraternity house (Llenroc) to University Avenue.

The stairway was given by Arthur Baldwin 1892 in memory of his son, Corporal Morgan Smiley Baldwin 1915, who died in 1918 of wounds sustained during the last major offensive of World War I; it was dedicated on Armistice Day 1925.

The copper box was found to be filled with Baldwin’s Cornell and Delta Phi memorabilia.

The contents were examined, recorded, and re-interred in a new stainless steel box (along with some new items) in a ceremony held later that year.

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One time capsule—dedicated to “future generations” and created by undergrad members of the Atmos engineering society—was set to be buried in early 1939.

But the (unauthorized) students were thwarted at least twice by campus police as they boldly attempted to dig—initially next to the Arts Quad’s A.D. White statue and then in front of Willard Straight Hall.

They remained undeterred. As a defiant Douglas Blackburn ’39 stated: “Cornell’s contribution to future civilization will be made despite the unwarranted prejudice to progress shown by an over-conservative Building and Grounds Department.”

Elaine Engst, then the university archivist, shows contents of the cornerstone box discovered in the Baldwin Memorial Stairway in 2006
Then-University Archivist Elaine Deutsch Engst, MA, ’72, displays contents of the Baldwin box. (Provided)

Among other items, the capsule reportedly contained a sealed test tube of air from Baker Laboratory, “scented with that beauteous aroma known only to those would-be chemists attempting to derive an education at Cornell,” the Daily Sun reported.

Built out of nickel-steel and filled with pressurized helium to preserve its contents for at least five centuries, it was apparently buried somewhere in Fall Creek Gorge, exact location unknown.

More contemporary “time capsules” have broken the mold—so to speak—of the traditional lead or copper box entombed in a building’s foundation.

For example, in November 1997, Air Force ROTC buried a time capsule under a planter outside Barton Hall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the service as an independent military branch. Press materials noted that the capsule should be opened on the Air Force’s centennial: September 18, 2047.

A collection of material documenting the University’s celebration of its 125th birthday includes a time capsule created by NYC alumni that resides in the University Archives, as does a “Millennium Box time capsule” that documents life at Cornell in the year 2000.

(“Access restricted until 2100,” its online catalog listing stipulates.)

And, in 2021, the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering created a video time capsule that lives on YouTube and “captures just a small slice of life in ECE during a particularly challenging year.”

Around the University’s Sesquicentennial celebrations in 2015, a handful of school-specific time capsules were buried; they’re set to be opened at the Bicentennial in 2065.

Perhaps the most unusual: a 10-foot-long aluminum capsule, visible through a glass panel in the floor of the Human Ecology Building’s lobby.

It features five interconnected pentagon-shaped nodes, weighs about 50 pounds, and contains magazines, course catalogs, electronic devices, receipts from Martha’s Café, and more.

The Human Ecology Building time capsule, visible through glass in the lobby floor, to be opened in 2065
The Hum Ec time capsule, in situ. (Mark Vorreuter)

Justine Dupal ’11, BS ’10, helped gather material for the capsule. She says that since she knew traditional items were already well represented, she aimed to provide some unexpected elements to authentically represent the student experience.

And what might those be? “If I reveal too much," she says, "it will ruin the surprise!"

When Arts & Sciences’ Klarman Hall was dedicated in 2016, a time capsule was filled with items selected by students and faculty and buried under the building’s plaza along Feeney Way. It includes students’ music mixes; short stories by creative writing majors; and lists of recommended music, books, art, movies, and TV.

Cornell Engineering buried a time capsule adjacent to the Pew Sundial in late 2015. Its notable, Cornell-developed contents include one of the tiny Sprite ChipSat mini-satellites and a 3D-printed cartilage implant of a human ear.

Designed by Eric Simeonoglou ’15, MEng ’16, the capsule was fabricated from stainless steel and finished with gold leaf.

Sealed with gaskets and a layer of silicone, “the capsule itself could likely outlast us all,” Simeonoglou says. It is set to be opened on October 24, 2065.

“With any luck,” he says, "I intend to be there when it happens—if I’m blessed enough to reach 72.”

Top: Corey Earle ’07 examines the contents of the Thurston Hall cornerstone box. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Published January 10, 2024


  1. Steven Ludsin, Class of 1970

    I recently reached out to my classmates from the Class of ’70 to create a digital time capsule with images and items from our years at Cornell which will be preserved by scanning. It will also be accessible and not require any removal of earth covering a container. I received great cooperation from the Alumni office and Evan Earle.

    • James horn, Class of 1979

      I was allowed to observe Cornell’s letter in the archives that summer archives staff very friendly extremely well preserved beautiful penmanship!

  2. PEGGY R GAYLORD, Class of 1977

    I am amazed at the quantity of cornerstones/time capsules on campus. Was/is this a common practice at other institutions?

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