The removal of the Lee statue on Monument Avenue in September 2021 kept the subject of its cornerstone and what might be contained inside it in the public’s eye. An archeologist at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources opened the battered copper box, and its contents were dutifully compiled and reported here.
The next box that turns up at DHR may be from the wreckage of the City’s soon-to-be-demolished former Safety, Health, and Welfare building at 500 North 10th Street, whose fate is tied to the planned expansion of the VCU medical campus. When the cornerstone for that building was laid in 1962, a box was placed in it containing among other items, a City agency report, photos of the 1961 demolition of John Marshall High School, a copy of the “unsuccessful Richmond-Henrico County merger agreement,” various police and fire badges, and a copy of the City Charter.
The Richmond Safety, Health, and Welfare Building on 19th Street.
The seat of city government, the City Hall, is the literal and sentimental heart of the municipal government and special treatment is often accorded the cornerstone of these important structures. That has been true in Richmond, with the exception of the first City Hall, which stood on the site of what we call Old City Hall today. Completed in 1818 and demolished in 1874, the City Hall designed by Robert Mills apparently had no ceremonial cornerstone. City officials certainly expected to find one, to the point the Common Council passed a resolution in July 1874 that if a cornerstone was found that they should be sure to preserve it. A few weeks later the Richmond Dispatch reported that the cleaning and leveling of what for years would be known as the vacant “City Hall Lot” had been completed, but glumly concluded regarding the missing cornerstone, “It is doubtful it ever existed.”
Richmond Dispatch, July 20, 1875, noting the inexplicable absence of a cornerstone in the foundation of Richmond’s first City Hall.
In contrast, Richmond staged a gala celebration in April 1887, almost twelve years to the day after the city surrendered to Federal troops at the end of the Civil War. The occasion was the 1887 laying of the cornerstone of the exuberant Gothic granite confection that was to be the new City Hall. “Not only was there laid in due form the cornerstone of a noble edifice of granite and mortar, but the suggestion was present that the occasion was the foundation of a new era of prosperity and happiness for Richmond,” gushed the Richmond Dispatch. The State went even further, describing the cornerstone placement and said of the new City Hall, “All our hopes, our aspirations and dreams are indissolubly linked to her fate for weal or woe.”
An early picture postcard view of Richmond’s City Hall.
The cornerstone laid in 1887 had a variety of mementos, coins, and documents from not only Richmond but around the world. Among the dozens of items were a bullet from a battlefield in Spotsylvania, a large amount of Confederate money, a Roman coin, a General Lee medallion, a plug of tobacco, a photo of Jefferson Davis and his daughters, a Nova Scotia penny, a copy of a proclamation of the Governor regarding the distribution of salt, and a piece of stone “from Stone’s Castle in Ireland.” There were also railroad timetables in the cornerstone, a German spelling book, and “a poem about the 1886 Charleston earthquake by Edgar Lufsey, age 14.”
The Richmond Dispatch, April 6, 1887.
The parade to the site of the cornerstone ceremony was emblematic of Reconstruction Richmond, with Confederate veterans followed by the “Colored” battalion of troops, the Police Department, City Council, White and Black civic societies marching separately, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a contingent of Masons, and ranks of City employees. Thousands of Richmonders flooded downtown to watch the event and everyone was reported as wearing their finest “Sunday clothes.”
The ceremony was overseen by the Masons, using their regalia and as is Masonic custom, the cornerstone was placed at the northeast corner of the building. Because of the obvious association, the Masons became an integral part of the observances surrounding cornerstones, ensuring the proper blessings are conveyed along with the practical matter of correct placement of the stone, both the sentimental and fundamental foundation of the building. The Richmond Dispatch confirmed the location: “In the northeast corner was the corner-stone: its middle hollowed out and then filled with the copper-box, containing the coins, newspapers, etc. etc.”
Unlike many other buildings, the 1887 cornerstone was not physically marked and for all the pomp and ceremony, celebration, and promise, its location was utterly lost over the generations. In 1969, City Hall was cleaned for the first time and the dirt and soot of 75 years was removed, once again revealing the sparkling gray granite. “Although the cleaning job itself apparently was successful, the project was disappointing in one respect. It failed to uncover the location of the City Hall cornerstone,” wrote the Times-Dispatch, “…It had been hoped that the cornerstone did indeed bear some identification that had been covered by grime, and that the cleaning would disclose the location. But it was a vain hope.”
The exact location of the “lost” Richmond City Hall cornerstone is here, on the northeast corner of the building, below the level of the sidewalk.
Actually, the exact location of the fabled Richmond City Hall cornerstone was described by the Richmond Dispatch on April 5, 1887. The basement and foundations of the City Hall required a huge excavation that consumed the entire city block. Referring to the northeast corner of the hole, the Dispatch said, “In the east corner the masonry is some five or six feet high, but it is not yet up to the street line,” meaning modern sidewalk level. “Here, in a solid block of granite a space 9x9x14 inches has been hollowed out. In it will be deposited a tight-fitting copper box, and in that box will be contained – for the benefit of a far remote posterity – memorials of the age in which we live, newspapers, coins, books, etc. etc….” The answer to the mystery of the lost cornerstone is that it may in fact be visible in the Old City Hall basement, about at eye level in the Broad Street corner, even if it is unmarked and looks just like all the other massive blocks that hold up Old City Hall. Armed with this new information about the location, the stone walls deserve a close inspection inside the building to see if some clue was left indicating which is the block with the embedded copper box.
There is an item of particular interest in that box. Part of the mystery about the 1818 City Hall is why it was in such wretched condition when it was demolished. The City Engineer found parts of the dome unsupported and on the point of collapse, yet Richmond’s venerable architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott noted: “the wreckers found it so solidly constructed that they had difficulty in tearing it down.” This is due to modifications to the building which ruined Mills’ engineering of City Hall. The Shockoe Examiner explored this paradox in 2021.
In the list of items deposited, there is a sketch of the “Plan of old City Hall as it existed when pulled down in 1874,” which was drawn by Assistant City Engineer S. Edward Bates. Examining that drawing could reveal the modifications and confirm the theory that well-meaning if incompetent City functionaries undermined the building’s supports. As a result of their changes, they denied Richmond another magnificent domed building in addition to Mill’s Monumental Church on the city’s grandest boulevard. The truth about the first City Hall is tantalizingly out of reach deep in the granite foundation of Old City Hall.
There was very little pomp and ceremony when the cornerstone for the new 1971 Richmond City Hall was unveiled on one of the last days of that year. A small number of City officials joined Mayor Thomas Bliley, Jr., and Councilman Aubrey Thompson on the southeast corner of the new building on the afternoon of December 29. No brass bands played, no passing processions of citizens or soldiers saluted the new facility, and no Masons appeared in their ceremonial garb. A few Richmonders walking by on Broad Street paused to see what was going on, and among them was 14-year-old Selden Richardson with his camera, vaguely aware that something verging on important was happening in front of City Hall.
The placement of the cornerstone of the current Richmond City Hall, December 29, 1971.
The 1971 cornerstone of the City Hall as it appears today.
Bliley and Thompson inserted a copper box into the wall with a selection of innocuous mementos of the city: a Richmond telephone directory, the Christmas issue of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper, a letter from City Council to whoever opens the capsule, and other small items selected by the staff of the Valentine Museum. The box was shoved behind the date stone with little fanfare and the edges were sealed by City employees. Once again recalling the loss of the 1887 cornerstone, the Times-Dispatch account of the 1971 event ran photos for the benefit of generations of Richmonders yet unborn under a succinct headline directing them to “The Southeast Corner” of the new City Hall.
The tradition of preserving mementos for some future age evolved from strictly cornerstones and expanded into time capsules in the 1970s. Improbably, Richmond was home to a chemist who was identified by the New York Times as “the time capsule industry’s leading technical consultant.” When interviewed, James E. Kusterer admitted, “Well, there’s no industry, so I don’t know how laudatory that is…” Kusterer’s previous claim to fame was at age 15, he “almost blew up Benedictine High School” after mixing up a quart of nitroglycerine in the science lab. After the building was evacuated, Kusterer’s experiment was removed from the school by the Fort Lee bomb squad.
The time capsule industry’s leading consultant, Richmond’s own James E. Kusterer. Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 30, 1976.
Kusterer went on to patent a method of preserving items in time capsules by first deacidifying and then stabilizing them in inert argon gas. In cooperation with Reynolds Metals, Inc., Kusterer took advantage of the mania for time capsules in the 1970s created by interest in the American Bicentennial and prepared aluminum repositories that were installed all over the country. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about Kusterer and his time capsules cited the frustrating loss of the Richmond City Hall cornerstone as an example of the dangers inherent in using building blocks as vessels of cultural preservation.
For now, the City Hall cornerstone contents remain in the perpetual dark for more than 130 years. One of those items that was placed in the cornerstone in 1887 was submitted by Mr. E. B. Gatling, a clerk who lived on North 20th Street. Dutifully listed among the other mementos in the copper box is Gatling’s list of “Questions to be answered in the sweet bye-and-bye.” Hopefully, one day when the 1887 City Hall finally reveals its secrets and provides the answers to Mr. Gatling’s questions, the Richmond of the future will be a city that truly meets the definition of that “sweet bye-and-bye.”