What happened to the time capsule UT Austin buried at Centennial Park?
This story was originally performed live at the Paramount Theatre on Oct. 11, 2023.
I want you to journey with me to a specific moment in Austin’s history. The year is 1983. It’s the 100th birthday of UT Austin, and the university has risen to the occasion: The Longhorns are having a perfect regular football season, just on the heels of the baseball team’s College World Series championship.
UT didn’t let this moment pass without a party. Students and alumni gathered on campus for a huge ceremony with a parade by the Longhorn band, and together, the city and the university dedicated a small park downtown east of Waller Creek. They called it Centennial Park, and they buried a time capsule there to commemorate the occasion.
An article from The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, reveals a few of the things that went inside the capsule: a packet of bluebonnet seeds, a Sears catalog, a walkman and a baseball autographed by the championship team. People also submitted to a contest to suggest an item to add to the capsule. Proposals included a stuffed armadillo, a doll that goes potty and water samples from Barton Creek.
The architects of this time capsule, like so many others, no doubt hoped they were exerting some control over how they would be remembered. After carefully selecting items meant to represent their current snapshot in history, they buried the capsule underground in an iconic city spot where it seemed sure to be safe. They even left careful instructions etched on a marble covering that rested over the capsule: open in 100 years — on Sept.15, 2083.
But that sense of control was an illusion.
In 2014, UT broke ground on the Dell Medical School campus, including Dell Seton Medical Center, located right on top of Centennial Park — and the university dug up the time capsule. At the time, university representatives said they planned to temporarily put it in storage at J.J. Pickle Research Campus in Northeast Austin before bringing it back to the Dell Medical School campus to be reburied.
That was almost a decade ago now. Did it ever happen?
That’s what one anonymous KUT listener asked our ATXplained Project: Where is the UT Centennial Time Capsule now? Is it still in storage? And if so, where will it be relocated?
When I first began poking around, I figured the time capsule couldn’t be too hard to find. According to the Daily Texan, it was at least 6 feet tall — and that’s just the part that was underground. There was also the 15,000-pound marble marker that rested over it. Something that big should be pretty hard to lose, right?
The truth is time capsules get lost all the time.
Experts from The International Time Capsule Society based in Atlanta, Ga., estimate that people lose track of around 80% of all time capsules. Often, folks who bury time capsules don’t leave enough of a paper trail, and over the years and decades, institutional stewards of time capsules move to other positions, retire and eventually die.
When I first reached out to folks at UT about the 1983 time capsule, they were intrigued, but most of them had never heard of it — not even a representative at Pickle, where the capsule had reportedly been stored. Over the course of several months, I traded calls and emails with a bevy of university representatives and employees. I often feared it was an exercise in futility, that the time capsule was lost with the sands of institutional memory.
But while this search continued, I became curious about what other time capsules might be buried around Austin. After all, we Austinites are a nostalgic people, right? Always complaining about how things used to be better in years gone by? I thought Austin must be littered with time capsules.
So I went on a little treasure hunt to see how many I could find.
My first stop was a rusty, broken fountain across the street from the Long Center. Maybe you’ve noticed it. It’s called Bicentennial Fountain, and there’s a time capsule buried behind it. It was placed on July 4, 1976, to celebrate 200 years of America’s independence from Britain. Like the UT Centennial capsule, this one is slated to be put into storage soon when the fountain is removed.
There’s another time capsule in the plaza outside Austin City Hall. It was placed in 2005 to commemorate the first City Council meeting in the new building. Because of previous KUT reporting, we know some of what’s inside of this one: sketches of City Hall, an “Austinopoly” game and a “Keep Austin Weird” sticker.
Our friends at The Austin Chronicle buried a time capsule under a tile mosaic on the floor at their office in Central Austin off I-35. back in 1999. I asked if it was a millennium thing, but they said they just had a big hole in the floor they needed to fill.
Jerald Corder, who works in ad sales for the Chronicle, was around when the time capsule was buried.
“I don't really remember what we put in there, other than probably some old papers and maybe some photos…and probably some joints,” he said.
The Chronicle will have to vacate its offices soon due to the upcoming I-35 expansion, and the staff plans to open the time capsule before that happens.
There’s also a time capsule at Mathews Elementary School in Clarksville in the base of a statue of their mascot, a dinosaur named Mazilla.
Another is buried in a grassy area at the Arboretum, placed when the shopping center opened in 1986 — who doesn’t want to remember that?
Funny enough, although the UT Centennial Time Capsule had to be dug and moved when construction began on Dell Seton, folks went ahead and put a different time capsule in the wall when it opened.
My hunt for the next capsule led me to an ominous door in the basement of the Blanton Museum of Art. I then descended a creaky ladder leading to a secret tunnel hidden beneath the university.
I was there because I found a random blog post from 2003 in which an anonymous person claimed they had left a time capsule in a utility corridor connected to the Blanton. They said it was behind some pipes and a layer of styrofoam with the word “UP” written on it. Very specific!
When I asked the folks at the Blanton if they knew about any such time capsule, building manager Bill Rose was immediately on the case.
“I know this building so well, and for someone to tell me there's a plaque somewhere that I had missed this whole time—I was like, ‘There's no way. I'm gonna find it,’” Rose said.
Maybe you’ve heard stories about the secret tunnel system under the university. This network connects utility lines to just about every building at UT. Once you’re down there, you could pop up like a meerkat anywhere on the main campus.
And down in this tunnel was exactly what the sketchy internet blog post described, down to the styrofoam. And behind that scrap of styrofoam? A tiny, makeshift plaque.
It’s tough to read, but the plaque says it was placed by UT’s mechanical distribution department. And at the bottom, it says “Contains Nothing Valuable.” That seems like a lie, right? What could they be hiding?
Well, according to that blog post, the people who placed the capsule only put personal items inside. I tried reaching out to a retired member of the mechanical distribution department to confirm but never heard back.
The Blanton time capsule isn’t supposed to be opened until 2103, so alas, we won’t know for sure what’s inside until I’m 108.
Crawling back up that creepy ladder out of the tunnel at the Blanton, I wondered what it was that drove these guys to stick this time capsule in that wall. I wondered about the driving impulse behind all these time capsules.
So I spoke to someone who might be one of Central Texas’ foremost time capsule experts, to the extent such a designation exists: Karen Ellis, the director of the Taylor Public Library.
Back in 2014, Ellis consulted with the city of Taylor as they planned to open a time capsule from 1935 that was placed in the cornerstone of the old Taylor City Hall.
Taylor residents of 1935 managed to fit a lot in a pretty small copper box: newspaper clippings, a switchblade and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s autograph. There was also a lot of Confederate money. It wasn’t legal tinder in 1935, but there was still a lot of pro-confederate sentiment in Taylor at that time, according to Ellis.
She said the things people choose to put in time capsules tell you a lot about what they value, and what they expect people in the future might see as important. But primarily, the stuff they choose is just sort of self-centered, like the personal photos that 1935 Taylor City Manager O.W. Davis slipped in.
“Time capsules are somewhat a vanity project,” Ellis said. “I think everybody wants to feel important. Conveying that importance into the future, you know, that's a gamble—this could have just as well been backhoed over and not exist at all.”
A vanity project? Sure. But it's also a hopeful enterprise.
After all this research, I managed to find quite a few other time capsules in Austin. I had been under the University of Texas like a mole woman. But I was still going in circles with the time capsule that started this whole thing — the UT Centennial Time Capsule. My white whale!
Finally, after months of back and forth and dead-end leads, I got a fateful call.
“Some folks at Dell Med came to me and said, ‘Hey, look, we're kind of throwing up our hands here. Can you help us out?’ And that's when I got involved, started poking around,” Brian Davis, a communications representative for UT, said.
He was able to find paperwork that confirmed the capsule was indeed initially moved to somewhere at the Pickle Research Campus for storage, and a plan was drawn up to move the capsule back to the Dell Med campus. But after a lot of searching, some facilities staff finally confirmed the capsule had never actually made it back — or if it had, they couldn’t find any evidence of it.
At that point, Davis figured maybe the capsule never left Pickle, and he started questioning various staff there. This brought him to a man named Mark Engelman, who runs UT’s Surplus REUse store and holds the keys to a storage yard known as The Bullpen.
It's where UT keeps extra building materials and items that aren’t being used anymore. State law dictates university property can’t simply be thrown out; it has to be made available to other UT departments before it can be sold or donated.
Some items are ultimately placed for sale at the Surplus Store. Others are retained at The Bullpen indefinitely for some nebulous possible future use. When Engelmann took me to The Bullpen, I found a collection of iconic university trash bins, piles of lumber and rusting metal bleachers. And what was sitting in a corner, just inside the fence? None other than the UT Centennial Time Capsule.
The capsule itself is inside a large plywood container next to the marble marker. The wood has peeled back, maybe as a result of being out in the elements, so you can see the metal capsule peeking out.
I was hoping Engelman could give me some insight on when the capsule got there, but he was adamant he was just the guy with the keys.
In the end, I couldn’t find a single person who could — or would — explain why the time capsule was still here. No one claimed to be in charge of it or wanted to take ownership of it. And yet, when I asked if KUT could relocate the capsule to our offices in our capacity as a UT department, so it could be displayed and preserved until 2083, I was told our request couldn’t be accommodated.
So for now, the UT Centennial Time Capsule is sitting above ground in a strange junkyard-esque lot, a sort of purgatory for stuff that can’t be used but can’t be thrown away. There don’t appear to be any immediate plans to relocate it or get it back underground for the next 60 years.
Not yet anyway.
“It's possible that the story alone kind of generates enough buzz and interest to do that,” Davis said.
I choose to view this as a positive outcome. This time capsule, which was an object of such fanfare in 1983, isn’t lost. Our fellow Texans reached out a hand through time, hoping that the Texans of 2083 would grasp it. And maybe that will happen.
Nobody wants to be forgotten, and I feel like we owe it to those hopeful Texans that came before us not to forget.