Who owns the time capsule found at historic Brashear factory?
March 25, 2015 11:56 PM
Workers open the time capsule they found while demolishing the building that once housed the factory in which John Brashear manufactured optics.
This picture dated August 1894 shows employees of John A. Brashear's mechanical department.
Crews demolish what remains of the Brashear Telescope Factory on the North Side last week.
This is a piece of optical glass found in the time capsule, with an inscription that reads "One of the first pieces of optical Glass Made in America."
By Dan Majors and Amy McConnell Schaarsmith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Demolition of the historic Brashear Telescope Factory on the North Side has unearthed a 120-year-old time capsule — and a dispute over who owns the dictionary-sized brass box and its contents.
The factory was built by self-made Pittsburgh astronomer John A. Brashear along Perrysville Avenue and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Workers there manufactured hundreds of telescopes and precise scientific instruments for observatories and scientific institutions throughout the world during its heyday at the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century.
In recent years, however, the abandoned Perry Hilltop building had fallen into disrepair. The city has owned the property since January 2012 and it was condemned four months later.
After a supporting wall collapsed onto a neighboring apartment building March 17, the city sought a contractor to demolish it. Jadell Minniefield Construction Services, a 10-person company on Second Avenue in Hazelwood, got the job for a $235,000 bid.
Workers found the time capsule Sunday.
“We were finishing up the job, pulling down the last wall, and one of the guys looked over and saw the box there,” said Odell Minniefield Jr., one of five Minniefield men — four brothers and Odell Minniefield Sr. — who work for the company. “It actually just came out of a cornerstone.”
Jadell Minniefield said he notified city officials about the find, as well as members of the Sen. John Heinz History Center regarding the box, which measures 10 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep.
On Tuesday, the Minniefields and Al Paslow of Bethel Park, a local member of the Antique Telescope Society visiting the site, opened the box and documented the contents, including an optical glass, a lock of hair from Brashear’s wife, Phoebe, family pictures, and plans and blueprints of the factory itself.
A photograph of the company’s mechanical department employees included is dated August 1894, so unlike most building time capsules, it was apparently installed after the 1886 completion of the building.
Other items inside the capsule included a letter from Brashear; newspaper articles from 1891 to 1894; photographs of prominent citizens of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, as the North Side was known; a letter from the owners of Cleveland telescope manufacturer Warner and Swasey Co. congratulating the Brashear company on completing the factory building; and a book labeled “In Memoriam William Thaw,” referencing Brashear’s mentor who paid to buy the land and build Brashear’s factory and nearby house.
“This capsule and its contents are of major historical importance not only to Pittsburgh, but to the rest of the world, too,” Mr. Paslow said. “I think they’re in really good hands right now. Everything has been put away and is under lock and key.”
“I think it’s an incredible find,” said Jadell Minniefield. “A piece of glass had writing on it that it was one of the first pieces of optical glass made in America, so I thought that was really cool.”
City officials agree.
A few hours after news of the time capsule was published, Odell Minniefield Jr. said, the company received a phone call from the city legal department and the head of the demolition department.
“It wasn’t courteous,” he said. “They want everything.”
The Minniefields, however, are hesitant to fork over their find and have contacted their attorney.
“We have a contract, and it basically states that any salvage belongs to the contractor,” said Odell Minniefield Jr.
City officials said they are looking into options for the capsule’s conservation and they hope to display the contents to the public.
Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the city believes the Minniefields are looking to make a profit.
“The city is reviewing its legal options and will do all it can to preserve this artifact for its rightful owners, the people of Pittsburgh,” Mr. McNulty said. “Pittsburgh already suffered one heartbreaking blow when the historic Brashear building had to come down for safety reasons, and it is sad that someone would consider taking economic advantage of this tragic situation.”
While the two sides remain at odds, Odell Minniefield Jr. said he’s got the box and its contents safely locked away.
“We’ve never found anything, really, of consequence,” he said. “This is a first for us. It’s a learning process for us. [But] I see that the city is not wasting any time zinging us.”
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