Volume 78 - Number 32 / January 7 - 13, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo courtesy Ruby Packard

A 1917 copper-box time capsule, above, recently discovered at P.S. 3 included a “Historical Sketch” of the school, a description of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit and alumni association materials.

‘Sand writing’ and the sands of time: P.S. 3 capsule found

By Albert Amateau

History came alive at P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village in November when workers who were renovating the school auditorium removed a bronze plaque from a wall and found a flat copper box with printed programs, songs and narratives about the school as it was 90 years ago.

The discovery on Nov. 13 was the beginning of time-capsule fever at the school at the corner of Hudson and Grove Sts.

“They were really excited and so were we,” said Lisa Siegman, P.S. 3 principal, recalling the day the renovation crew came into her office with the box that had been clamped to the back of the plaque.

Siegman sent an e-mail about the find to Terri Ruyter, who works in the Department of Education’s Manhattan Service Center and is doing research on teaching American history.

“She got me in touch with Elizabeth Grant, director of education at the New-York Historical Society, and with Alan Balicki, chief preservationist at the society,” Siegman said.

P.S. 3, being the school where General Lafayette came to visit in 1824 in the original wooden building on the site, has its own historical team. The fifth-grade class, taught by Otis Kriegel and Adrienne Siegfried, creates its own time capsule every year. And soon after the box came to light, Grant and Balicki paid the class a visit to look over its contents.

Balicki pointed out the remains of rubber bands that time had reduced to little black fragments. He showed the class where the ink on a typewritten “Historical Sketch” had left a reverse impression on the bottom of the box. And he advised the class of 10- and 11-year-olds that it was not a good idea to put an iPod in their own time capsule because a battery leak could damage the rest of the contents.

But the documents and pictures in the 1917 time capsule didn’t appear to have suffered the ravages of time.

“They were in great shape,” said Ruby Packard, the school’s computer teacher, who photographed the box and its contents a few days later. “They didn’t seem to be brittle,” she observed.

Because everyone in the school wanted to see the contents, Siegman was anxious about potential damage. She was relieved when Balicki agreed to take the box and its contents to the historical society on Central Park West, where the time capsule will be preserved and displayed in the society’s library.

P.S. 3 students are scheduled to visit the society later this month for a special showing of their historical treasure, but the date has not yet been determined.

The fifth-grade students began writing letters to the future for inclusion in a new time capsule that last month replaced the old one behind the plaque in the auditorium. The letters explained what life was like for fifth graders at the end of 2008. Some students posed technical questions, such as “Do you have interactive gloves instead of remote controls?” and “Do you have robots in your time?” Another explained, “We read with books. Books have papers with a lot of letters. The letters put together make words. Words are what you are reading right now.”

One fifth grader’s letter to the future said, “Right now in the 21st century there are wars in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. We hope they end soon.” Another expressed the opinion that Barack Obama “wants to stop the Iraq war and stop global warming.”

The documents from 1917 were entirely different, having been generated by the B.D.L. Southerland Association of distinguished P.S. 3 alumni. The association was named after Benjamin de Lamater Southerland, 1829-1905, principal of the Grove St. Grammar School No. 3 from 1867 to 1902. Southerland was a student at P.S. 3 in 1838 and then a teacher until 1853 when he went out of town to become principal of a school in Flushing. He came back to “Old No. 3” in 1856 as assistant principal, and nine years later was appointed principal.

The copper box had a couple of medals that were given to alumni and to graduating students, as well as programs from a few annual B.D.L. Southerland Association dinners. School songs and engravings of the long-bearded Southerland were among the contents, along with a roster of distinguished old graduates.

The historical outline chronicles the school from 1818 when it opened with 51 pupils in a building on Trinity Parish property acquired by the Free School Society. It grew to 200 students, and in 1820 the Free School Society built a new building, which served boys and girls. In 1860, a new brick and stone structure replaced the previous building.

In the early days, Grammar School 3 was famous for its special “sand system” writing program, consisting of a 15-foot-long wooden box 6 inches wide with the bottom stained black and covered with a thin coat of sand. Students would practice their penmanship writing in the sand — uncovering the black bottom — with a wood stylus as thick as a goose quill. It was such a remarkable device that General Lafayette came to inspect it in 1824, according to the historical sketch.

“We still teach penmanship here — but we don’t use the sand system,” Siegman said.

The historical account also notes that in February 1905, the 1860 building and its annex were destroyed by fire. A new building, still in use, was completed in 1906. The adjacent auditorium annex on the north side was built in 1916 and dedicated in 1917 — when the copper box was installed.

The school was rededicated more than 40 years ago as the Charette School after neighborhood parents took part in a workshop to develop a new education philosophy for P.S. 3.

“Our school has had a series of incarnations. We still have an eye to the future,” said Siegman.

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