Jardine: Building itself a time capsule

NEWMAN -- The thrill of opening a time capsule is anticipating what you'll find inside.

It's speculating what the folks a century ago figured we would like to see or would deem important when curiosity finally got the best of us a century later.

Earlier this month, Newman business owners and residents cracked open the time capsule in the corner of the 100-year-old Knights of Pythias building downtown. Except that cracking it open probably isn't an apt description. I'll get to that momentarily.

Building owners David Keller and his sister, Sand Mullen, invited former building owners, local politicians, longtime area residents and members of the Newman Historical Society to this orchestrated break-in.

"Everybody's been curious," Keller said. "The (Newman Historical Society) knew nothing about (the contents). Every previous owner passed down information to the next owner."

No one left behind a list detailing what went inside when the capsule was sealed in mid-July 1910.

"I kept thinking, 'Was it going to be like Geraldo?' " Mullen said, recalling TV maven Geraldo Rivera's overhyped 1986 opening of gangster Al Capone's old vault in Chicago. More than 30 million TV viewers watched as Rivera found -- drumroll, please -- some trash.

Getting into the time capsule in Newman required some serious effort. Based on photographs taken shortly after the building opened -- depicting a harness shop occupying the bottom floor and horse-drawn buggies parked in front -- they knew where the capsule should be. A big white square at the left corner of the building, next to the doorway leading upstairs, seemed to be a pretty obvious place.

"A contractor showed up with a hammer and chisel," Keller said. "It was hot that day. We were all sweating pretty good."

The available tools, they quickly realized, weren't enough. In 1910, they didn't use stucco on plywood. They built cement fortresses.

"So (the contractor) went and got a concrete drill," Keller said.

They drilled and drilled and chipped away through about 4 inches of concrete until finding a tin box deep inside the cornerstone.

"We realized we'd ruin it," he said.

They pried off the cover and pulled out the contents. And what did they find?

• Wonderfully preserved July 16, 1910, copies of both the West Side Daily News and the Modesto Evening News, the latter of which became The Bee in 1933.

• An explanation of how the Knights of Pythias Lodge 139 began with 26 charter members in nearby Hills Ferry in 1886, moving four miles away three years later when the railroad came through and Newman was founded.

• A roster of the 80 Knights who were members of the organization in 1910.

• Receipts from Hoyt Brothers, who constructed the building.

• Some dimes, nickels and pennies dating back to 1886.

• Full-color badges from the West Side Fair's dairy competition scheduled for September 1910, about two months after they sealed the goodies.

All of that was pretty much your standard boilerplate stuff as time capsules go.

The real gem is the building itself, designed by renowned architect William H. Weeks. His long list of works includes the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk's casino and natatorium (swimming pool) buildings, Modesto's McHenry Library (now the museum) and Modesto Junior College.

The Knights of Pythias organization, founded in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, still exists and has 2,000 lodges nationwide. Buildings such as the one in Newman were called "castles."

The three-story edifice included the retail space on the bottom floor, a meeting room on the second floor, and a kitchen and dining room on the third floor. During World War II, the building was remodeled to include three apartments on the second floor and two on the third.

The bottom floor later housed the Police Department and City Hall, and now is home to a bank branch and a beauty salon.

Mullen and Keller, the latter a former Patterson mayor whose rock band once played in the third- floor meeting room, bought the building in 2004. The exterior is in excellent shape, though the roof needs some work.

Time combined with wear and tear to take its toll on the big meeting room, which they are in the process of trying to restore to its original grandeur. That could take a while, Keller said, considering the state of the economy and that the revenue from the building's tenants barely covers the mortgage. It doesn't leave much capital available for remodeling.

East Bay resident Tom Aswad, one of the previous owners, donated the two elaborate Knights of Pythias thrones to the Newman Historical Society before selling the building in 2001.

These oak-framed thrones are too big to be displayed in the museum just down the street from the Knights of Pythias castle. So they are resting in the home of one of the museum's board members.

"They are there for safe keeping," historical society President Mary Moore said.

Keller would like to have them back for his building and Moore said she is open to the discussion once he completes the restoration and the meeting room once again is available for public use. Keller and Mullen might need to add an exterior stairway/ fire escape to appease the fire marshal, and that won't be cheap.

Moore said the historical society also wants assurance that the thrones would always remain with the building or be returned to the museum.

"The building has changed hands a lot," she said. "If (Keller) had it open, we'd give 'em back. But he'd have to sign 'em back over (to the historical society) if he sold it again."

Keller, meanwhile, has offered the recently extracted contents of the time capsule to the museum in exchange for the chairs. He also wants to give residents a chance to place new items representative of our modern times in the tin box before he seals it back up.

Which means that a century later, the questions are no different than they were back in 1910:

What will the citizens of Newman want to see or deem important when their curiosity gets the best of them 100 years from now?

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.