SWAMPSCOTT — Crews tearing down the former Swampscott Middle School on Greenwood Avenue to allow for the construction of a 28-condominium development were surprised to uncover a 124-year-old time capsule underneath the building.
The time capsule was buried on April 28, 1894, the day the school was dedicated.
“The existence of a time capsule was always assumed, although locating it in the midst of a complete demolition of a 105,000 square-foot building was like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack,” wrote Angela Ippolito, chairwoman of the Planning Board, in a prepared statement. “Needless to say, its discovery was quite a thrill.”
Ippolito said in a separate phone interview with The Item said it was customary for buildings that went up during that time period, especially public buildings and schools, to have a time capsule buried underneath. But it wasn’t clear where it was located, although there had been some language indicating it would be beneath the cornerstone.
She said a second time capsule was believed to be buried after the major 1936 renovation to the school, but has yet to be found. She said that capsule was always understood to be underneath the flagpole, but the problem is that flagpole had been moved a couple of times on the grounds.
“When we actually found the oldest one, we were shocked,” Ippolito said. “We were thrilled.”
Ippolito said the original capsule was buried under one of the front steps of the building. As the granite slabs of the stairway were removed, a demolition crew member noticed something odd.
The underside of one of the slabs had been hollowed out and cemented over. Out of curiosity, the man chipped away at it and discovered a sealed copper box, somewhat dented and green with age, but otherwise in good shape, Ippolito said.
Ippolito said it was remarkable that the copper box didn’t have any water damage to it. The demolition crew and developer Tom Groom, of Groom Construction, had been given a heads-up by her and town historian Lou Gallo that there may be a capsule unearthed during demolition.
With coordination from Gallo and the Groom crew, the time capsule was handed over to the town. Its contents were rolled up and packed very tightly inside the capsule, which was about the size of a large shoebox.
Contents included two newspapers with 1894 dates, the Daily Evening Item and the Boston Daily Advertiser; one book entitled “Sketches of Swampscott”; four bound town annual reports; one paper-bound address, which was read at the school dedication; a bundle of news clippings and notes; a remnant of a military wormer in a paper roll with an inscription, used in the Civil War; a hat band from a military uniform, also believed to be from the Civil War; one “Grand Army of the Revolution,” medal with a ribbon; and a list of soldiers and seamen who served in the war.
The town has turned the time capsule over to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, where the paper conservation specialists are assessing the contents and will make recommendations for their handling and display.
Ippolito said the biggest challenge with the process is unrolling the tightly rolled contents and flattening the newspapers, which are stiff and brittle. The NEDCC will humidify them and get them flat with the goal of creating a means of display that allows viewing and access without causing any damage.
Ippolito said the plan is to make the contents available for public viewing at Town Hall, which would be at an event likely held in the fall.
“The goal is just to figure out how to get this stuff in good enough shape where people can come and see it,” Ippolito said. “It’s such a fascinating thing that people are going to want to go through it and read it.”
Ippolito said she was also amazed to see during the demolition process that the original 1894 building was still there, which was revealed as the exterior layers of the 1936 renovation were peeled away.
She attended the Greenwood Avenue school when it was the old Swampscott High School, and was involved in the lengthy process of trying to find a reuse for the property. So, she said she’s always had a soft spot for the building.
The original building was designed and built in the Romanesque style at a cost of $45,000 on land donated to the town by the Phillips family. It was situated at the top of Greenwood Avenue with sweeping views of the ocean and town, and since it was the only structure located at the top of the hill at that time, it could be seen from miles away, Ippolito said.
The building was originally named “The Phillips School,” and was the town’s first high school. Peeling away the exterior layers of the 1936 addition not only revealed the original building, but also showed the original “Phillips – 1894 – School” raised lettering on the facade.
The school was later referred to as Swampscott High School before becoming Swampscott Middle School, and then eventually shuttered in 2006. It underwent minor alterations in 1915, the major renovation in the Neoclassical style in 1936 and another addition in 1969.
The school was shuttered for many years, with Salem-based Groom Construction being granted final approval from the town last year to redevelop the site into 28 condominiums. Demolition of the school began in May.