In Search of the Missing Time Capsule

It ain't easy keeping track of Austin's history

John Davison, with a sample of old Austin memorabilia
John Davison, with a sample of old Austin memorabilia (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Whenever a new building appears on the Austin skyline or an existing office changes hands, there are cries that another bit of Austin history is disappearing. The tale of one time capsule, buried three decades ago, shows just how difficult it can be to preserve that history.

Back in 1981, local architect John Dav­is­on made a contribution – three bumper stickers he and his wife had designed – to a time capsule that was then buried at the old Chase bank building at 700 Lavaca. Last December, Davison was passing the site and saw that the plaza was being repaired. Fearing accidental damage, he said, he "spent the rest of the day trying to assure the capsule could be saved and relocated to a safe place." As the locator plaque was gone, he contacted city staff and the Austin History Center for the capsule's exact whereabouts. He was eventually informed by the Downtown Aus­tin Alliance that it had actually been dug up about three years earlier.

So where had it gone? The capsule was now in the JPMorgan Chase vaults, and as far as the bank is concerned, they've been good stewards of a piece of history they inherited. The capsule was initially buried by Texas Commerce Bank, which was acquired by Chemical Bank in 1986, which acquired Chase Manhattan in 1996, and Chase acquired JP Morgan & Co. in 2000. All the while, the time capsule sat undisturbed and generally unnoticed – until 2004, when the owners (now JPMorgan Chase) bought out Bank One and its offices on Sixth Street. In 2005, the Bank One sign came down, the JPMorgan Chase sign went up, and the bank moved its offices – along with the capsule.

Fast-forward to last December: The workers Davison saw on the Lavaca plaza were actually working for owner Travis Realty Corp., which has since sold the building to Travis County, and the time capsule was long gone. According to bank spokesman Greg Hassell, "The building manager said, 'You guys are moving out; you should take the time capsule with you.'" The contents, he said, include "stuff that employees gave, annual reports, newspaper clippings, not real earth-shattering. ... It's not something that would probably be interesting to anyone outside of our organization."

When it comes to tracking the city's buried history, there can be more at stake than just lost stickers. In 2008, 4,000 gallons of heating oil washed out of an old tank in a back alley behind the Littlefield Building and into Waller Creek (see "City Still Cleaning Up Waller," Jan. 25, 2008). It took three months and a deep search of the city archives to work out who originally put the tank there, and then another five months and a Texas Commis­sion on Environmental Quality review to judge who was legally culpable. At the time, staff at the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department expressed surprise that such environmental accidents aren't more common, considering the number of old and undocumented tanks, pipes, and cables around town and the number of new buildings on top of old foundations. Even well-documented buried history can be a headache: Ester Matthews of the Austin Climate Protection Program explained that the old Butler landfill in the westerly corner of Zilker Park "continues to cause problems for us." Fixing those problems isn't cheap: On Dec. 17, council approved a $390,177 contract with J.R. Schneider Construction to build erosion controls and a drainage channel.

Even if documents are saved, there's the question of where to put them. The Austin History Center is the main repository for city records but has a small acquisitions budget. On top of that, the center receives around 90 feet of donated documents every year. "The volume of material that comes in far outpaces our ability to make any sense with it," said center manager Mike Miller. To keep up, the center has adopted what the Society of Amer­ican Archivists calls the "more product, less process" standard: Instead of rigorously cataloguing every page and paperclip, Miller said, the aim is "to get a basic description and be comfortable with the idea that a little bit is better than nothing at all." While the Internet makes access to old files easier for researchers, it's not a cure-all: A piece of paper can last for centuries, said Miller, but because of changes in technology and file formats, "the average life span for digital media is five years."

For now, the time capsule contents are safe in a vault, but Davison disagrees with Hassell's depiction of the artifacts as "bank tchotchkes." He said, "As far as I recall, the city called me and asked me to put our contributions in it" and said that creating the capsule "was a really big hoopla." While he was glad to know it hadn't just been discarded, Davison said, "I really am disappointed in the reaction."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

John Davison, Austin History Center, Downtown Austin Alliance, JPMorgan Chase, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

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