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Frank Cerra removes a newspaper from the Jackson Hall time capsule.

Frank Cerra and Jennifer Gunn begin to remove contents from the 1911 time capsule found in Jackson Hall.

A gift from the past

U artifacts discovered in Jackson Hall time capsule

By Rick Moore

Published on January 6, 2005

There are some definite perks to being the senior vice president for health sciences. Like getting to unwrap a present left for you 93 years earlier by the head of the University's anatomy department. Such was the case for Frank Cerra on Wednesday, January 5, when he opened a time capsule embedded in Jackson Hall in 1911 that was discovered about two months ago in the final stage of the building's renovation.

After the black metal box was pried open in the lobby of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building, about two dozen curious spectators craned their necks as Cerra, accompanied by U medical historian Jennifer Gunn, slowly removed its carefully wrapped contents. In addition to local newspapers of the day, the treasure included a medical paper by Thomas Lee, the anatomy chair; a picture book of the University; bulletins or catalogs from many of the U's colleges; a biennial report from the Board of Regents; a seminal book on medical teaching; and sketches containing unfulfilled visions of the great architect Cass Gilbert.

The time capsule was packaged and dated on September 5, 1911 (Jackson Hall opened in 1912), in connection with the dedication that day of Elliot Memorial Hospital, the first hospital at the University of Minnesota. At the time, Cyrus Northrop was culminating his 27-year tenure as the University's second president. Adolph Eberhart was governor of Minnesota and William Taft the president of the United States, and, interestingly, we were closer to the end of the Civil War than we were to the beginning of the Vietnam War.

"I think we owe a big thanks to Dr. Lee and his colleagues," said Frank Cerra.

Cerra read from a cover letter that was placed atop the box's main bundle, explaining that the items were placed in the capsule "for the purpose of preserving some bits of University history for the use of future generations." There was also a summary of the various appropriations needed from the state legislature, from 1909 to 1911, to construct a medical sciences building worth around $500,000. "I guess it took a long time [to get state funding] then, too," Cerra quipped, before pointing out that the Molecular and Cellular Biology Building is worth $90 million.

He was especially impressed with a 1908 volume entitled "The Unification of Medical Teaching in the State of Minnesota: An Historical Evening December 8, 1908, University of Minnesota." "Wow, that's worth reading," Cerra said. "This was the first step toward real formalized medical education."

Gilbert's renderings of a University as we've never known it also drew admiration from Cerra and Gunn. Among the rolled-up sketches were overhead views of Northrop Mall and a medical quadrant that, had Gilbert's vision been fulfilled, might have included two L-shaped buildings north of two amphitheaters leading down to the Mississippi River. Said Gunn of the drawings: "These are priceless."

She also pointed out the significance of the time capsule being placed in conjunction with the dedication of the U's first hospital. "That was an important landmark in establishing the University as a prominent medical school," Gunn said.

Most of the items pertained directly to the University of Minnesota, with a few notable exceptions. There were at least a half dozen Masonic books (at the time, Masonic rites were customary when laying cornerstones, Gunn suggested), and another volume that was secretly placed in the capsule by Louise Lee, Thomas Lee's wife.

And the first item that Cerra removed--a Minneapolis Journal newspaper from the afternoon of September 4--provided an interesting glimpse of the news of the day, both in Minnesota and around the world. "State Fair opens in all-day rain" and "Sewers fail when downpour comes" were the top headlines. And, lest that sound too mundane, the day's other top headline provided a piercing parallel to a current event: "100,000 Chinese drown in flood: Torrential rains cause banks of the Yang-tse-Kiang River to overflow." Many of the articles in the Jackson Hall time capsule will now move on to University Archives and become part of the official public record of the University.