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Douglass statue time capsule contents badly damaged


Water is the enemy of all sorts of archives. It's the reason historical collections are kept in humidity controlled rooms and the reason why family heirlooms shouldn't be kept in a dank basement.

It's also what rendered the contents of a recently unearthed time capsule, buried underneath the Frederick Douglass monument at Highland Park, into what Christine Ridarsky, the City of Rochester historian, described at a news conference Friday as looking like "a pile of pulp."

Crews are moving the Douglass statue to a more prominent location in the park and they dug up the capsule earlier this week.

City Historian Christine Ridarsky. - PHOTO BY RANDY GORBMAN, WXXI NEWS
  • City Historian Christine Ridarsky.
The copper box was badly damaged and its contents were exposed to repeated cycles of freezing, thawing, and drying out, Ridarsky said. The box dates to 1899, when the Douglass statute was first installed at the New York Central train station on the corner of St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. When the statute was moved to the Highland Park Bowl in 1941, community members added to the box and buried it again at the statue's base.

The box appeared to be intact at the time of its 1941 burial based on photographs from the time, Ridarsky said.

The loss isn't as bad as it could have been. The capsule's contents were well documented and mostly included printed materials that are likely in other local collections, Ridarsky said. Among them: books, newspaper clippings, and an article Susan B. Anthony wrote for a magazine. Perhaps the biggest loss was a letter from the government of Haiti, a country to which Douglass served as ambassador, Ridarsky said.

The city and county brought in a conservator to examine the capsule's contents and were advised that trying to remove them from the box could damage them, Ridarsky said. The local governments will now hire a firm to freeze-dry the contents so that they can be preserved and examined using future technologies or displayed later.