Buried Treasures: Unearthing Time Capsules - Page 2

Mysterious time capsules—returning from deep sleep to evoke the 'now' for future generations

Just ask Steve and Pam Wedel about the value of historic objects. Shortly after they bought their home near Sacramento, they found photos of the home's first owners, an African-American doctor and his family. Their house was a custom design by architect Carter Sparks, who is best known for his tract homes for Streng Bros. Homes.

By quizzing neighbors, the Wedels discovered that the original owners were the first black family who moved to the neighborhood, in 1959. The family was able to do so, the story went, only because Sparks used deception—listing himself as the house's owner—to help circumvent the area's covenants and restrictions, which banned blacks from the neighborhood.

Or ask Michael Sainato and Iris In't Hout, who discovered some old landscape plans squirreled away in their Eichler home in Marin. The plans were by landscape architect Robert Royston, and they proved to be more than memorabilia. Sainato and In't Hout hired a member of the still-extant firm to recreate a garden based on them.

Thanks to preserved photos and documents, the Wedel and Sainato-In't Hout houses retained their history. Contrast them with a once-famous house that lost its history—and, as a result, may suffer the consequences.

Back in 1957, the same year Tulsa buried its Plymouth, the modernist architect Bev Thorne completed a steel-framed house in the Oakland Hills that was so strong, the Bethlehem Steel Co. boasted, that a helicopter could land on the roof. That's exactly what happened on opening day, while steel executives, city officials, and Thorne himself looked on.

two palm springs postcards from scott kennedy collection

The house received lavish press, and was open to the public for a month to raise money for charity. It's one of the most important houses by Thorne, one of the masters of steel, and one of the few Northern Californians who designed a Case Study house for 'Arts & Architecture' magazine's renowned program in the 1950s and '60s. But all this had been forgotten when the house came on the market last year. It was being sold as ripe for a major remodel or teardown. If only the house had come with a time capsule!

If you could design the perfect time capsule, one that would inform future generations about life at the start of the 21st century in your wonderful, mid-century home or neighborhood, what would you put in it?

"Gosh, it's kind of limitless, isn't it?" says Nickie McLaughlin, PS ModCom's vice president. "It's what your mind can think of!" Since McLaughlin focuses on preserving modern buildings in Palm Springs, it's not surprising that she should consider a time capsule as a tool for preservation. Stash in the time capsule any documents and photos that would help future owners maintain or restore a home. "Especially if you have the original blueprints." She says.

PS ModCom has never created a time capsule. But it might be a good idea, she says. She would fill it with serious, historic material about the Cahuilla Indians who first settled the valley, the pioneer developers, the mid-century architects. "Original tiles from the old hotels, photos of people who lived in the houses, who stayed at the hotels," could also go in, she says.

Some of these objects might come from Scott Kennedy's collection, which he has rescued over the years. He's got blue-and-white tiles from the façade of architect Bill Cody's Spa Hotel, a glass block and a light fixture from the old Biltmore Hotel, and a cast-aluminum city seal, probably from the old city jail designed by architect Albert Frey.

film strip with vintage photos

But not everything has to be certifiably historic, McLaughlin adds. "You could have some of the kitschy stuff you would find on your coffee table from a certain era—the glasses, the cups. I think it would have to be a very large capsule!"

Robert Imber, a Palm Springs tour guide and preservationist, would include objects that evoke both 2007 and 1957—since Palm Springs today is all about celebrating the mid-century. "The clothing that people wore poolside back then that was so indicative of the era," he suggests. "Different kinds of hats and sunglasses, classic Palm Springs things. Also stuff from the dude ranches and the cowboy stuff. Palm Springs was a real cowboy town." And from today, he suggests, "an article of Trina Turk's clothing. I'd put in an Orbit Inn [the hotel] coaster. It's totally iconic, and it's today. Maybe a Shag painting, some modern-day artwork based on Palm Springs architecture.