November 20, 2009

University opens Law School time capsule

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The cornerstone of the University of Chicago Law School served as a time capsule for over a century, protecting the words of Supreme Court justices, newspapers, and political scientists since 1903. The cornerstone was opened in August to commemorate the 50th anniversary of classes in the Law School’s current building south of the Midway.

Preservationists from the Regenstein Library opened the envelopes to reveal letters from academics, publishers, and prominent legal figures. These included letters from five Supreme Court Justices, including William Brennan.

“Putting the letters in was a brilliant idea,” said Julie Wright, associate dean for library and information services at the Law School. “The individuals chosen were intelligent, thoughtful, and informed individuals.”

President Theodore Roosevelt attended the 1903 ceremony for the placing of the first cornerstone at Stuart Hall, which originally housed the Law School. When the stone was moved in 1958 to the new building, Law School administrators found a box with newspapers, letters, miscellaneous coins, photographs, and a handwritten note with the names of the school’s builders. The contents of the original cornerstone were re-interred with added materials in 1958.

Many of those letters focused on escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, and Assistant Dean for Communications and Lecturer in the Law School Marsha Nagorsky found them revealing.

“What was striking to me, as someone who was born in the 1970s, was how all-consuming the Cold War was. It is easy to forget that,” Nagorsky said.

Discussion of the next cornerstone will be delayed until January 1, when incoming Law School Dean Michael Schill begins his term.

For the next addition to the cornerstone, to be opened in 2059, the Law School will focus on the everyday—it plans to collect objects that U of C law students might carry.

“Nowadays it is difficult to come up with something unique to put in a cornerstone. All of these publications are readily available today,” Wright said. “Most of the things we think are permanent today will be irrelevant in 50 years.”

The cornerstone items are currently assembled in display cases on the first floor of the Law School building. Out of concern for the effect of temperature and humidity on the antique documents, the display items will be removed in a few weeks and archived in the Special Collections Research Center at the Regenstein Library. The original photographs and letters will be scanned and published in the Alumni Magazine later this year.