January 15, 2020
by Emily Rose Clayton (GSAS '20)
January 2020 marks a step into a new decade, twenty eventful years into a new millennium. If we were asked today to list off the most important events, cultural icons, technological advances, markers of daily life from the past two decades, what would be highlighted? In 1964, this question confronted members of the University Heights campus at New York University as they set about the task of assembling a time capsule. What artifacts would accurately represent the experience of being a college student at a time when the country was still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement reaching its peak, and Beatle-mania just beginning to sing its way into American culture?
The University Heights time capsule was assembled by students of NYU honor society Perstare & Praestare, led by graduate student David Fleishmann. In a 1964 article in the Heights Daily, Fleishmann was inspired by other famous capsules, saying that “these, it seemed to me, were important in giving us a true feeling of life at the time they were buried.” Students were assisted in the creation of the time capsule, made of titanium and sealed with helium gas, by Dr. John P. Nielsen and Dr. Harold Margolin, both of the metallurgy department in the School of Engineering.
The millennial capsule was designated to be opened nearly forty years later, during the Founders’ Day celebrations in the year 2000.
The ceremonial burying of the capsule took place during the Founders’ Day celebrations on June 8, 1964, but was not actually interred until November of that year. The capsule was commemorated by a bronze plaque on the Gould Student Center, which indicated where it was buried and when it was to be opened. At the time the 1964 students buried the capsule, there was no reason to consider the potential loss or disruption of the capsule, safely hidden away under their beloved university.
However, in 1973, the Heights campus was sold to Bronx Community College as NYU faced a financial crisis which threatened to close the school. It is not known exactly when or how the capsule was retrieved, but by 1975 the capsule, along with its contents, was safely tucked away in the Historical Collection on the fifth floor of 19 University Place, under the protection of professor emeritus of history and director of the Archives Office, Bayrd Still.
The bulk of the contents of the capsule highlight the history and traditions of the university, with Fleishmann hoping that “people here today will be able to come back and remember what ‘old times’ were like.”
The oldest item contained in the capsule is an 1860 copy of the university catalog, which rests alongside audio recordings of lectures, programs from sporting events and artistic performances, class syllabi, photographs, and other items which capture student life. A portion of the collection also reflects the contemporary political climate, with pamphlets and press releases from the Civil Rights movement, and a number of items commemorating the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy. The capsule also contains letters from the organizers which document the process of assembling the collection.
Today, the capsule and its collections reside in the University Archives. Although the ceremony planned for the millennium celebrations never took place, the University Heights capsule is one of the lucky minority of time capsules which are successfully retrieved; the International Time Capsule Society estimates that up to 80% of capsules have been lost, damaged, or never opened. In this case, the collection of the capsule itself still serves the intended purpose as a glimpse into the world of the 1960s, the lives of the students who assembled it, and the history of New York University.