HUNTINGTON BEACH — You might call it romancing the stone.
And you could accurately say it is preserving the past. On the old Huntington Beach Pier on Wednesday morning, workers gingerly removed the pier's original cornerstone, a granite block inscribed: Municipal Pier 1914. The stone was then carefully carried off for temporary storage.
The old pier is being torn down, and its 76-year-old cornerstone is scheduled to be placed in the new, replacement pier. "This will be a continuity of history," said Jerry Person, chairman of the city's Historic Resources Board, as he watched the stone being removed.
The Wednesday morning event, however, also featured a continuity of mystery.
To the frustration of bystanders, including a gaggle of news reporters, city officials decided to postpone opening a metal time capsule sealed in mortar to the top of the cornerstone.
"We'll have ceremonies for the time capsule opening later on," Person said. He added that no date has been set for the opening.
Removal of the cornerstone came this week as large portions of the old pier were stripped away by the contractor, Riedel International. A barge with a heavy crane arrived at the pier Tuesday night to start removing many concrete pieces, including some that had been sheared off in the 1988 winter storms and which have since rested on the ocean bottom. The old pier was shut down in July, 1988, after being declared unsafe. The new $11-million pier is scheduled to be built and open by summer of 1992.
In the meantime, the city is saving the 1914 cornerstone and its time capsule as mementos of the old pier.
The metal time capsule is small and rusted. It was sealed to the top of the cornerstone in elaborate ceremonies in June, 1914, when the concrete pier was completed and dedicated.
The Huntington Beach News covered the 1914 cornerstone-laying event. The headline: "PIER CELEBRATION WAS GIGANTIC SUCCESS--TWENTY THOUSAND VISITORS ENTERTAINED." That was a huge crowd, indeed, for a village that then had fewer than 1,500 residents.
The 1914 newspaper reported what was sealed in the time capsule. "The tin box placed in the stone is 3 x 4 x 9 inches and contains a copy of the Huntington Beach News under date of June 12; one of the programs of the celebrations, and a list of city officials," the newspaper said.
Person acknowledged that those humdrum items are hardly the stuff of buried treasure. But Person said he wonders if something else, unreported by the 1914 press, was also secretly sealed in the time capsule. "Some people put personal mementos into time capsules back in those days," he said.
This week, some of the pier spectators wanted to believe that treasure existed inside the old cornerstone.
On Tuesday at 3:40 p.m., when the cornerstone was first tugged loose from the pier, there was a small crowd watching avidly. One teen-ager in the crowd exclaimed: "Diamonds! Rubies!"
But no jewels fell into the sunshine as the old stone broke loose. The metal time capsule, however, clearly showed. It was badly rusted, with some holes in it. City officials said that any papers inside the capsule might have turned to dust. Nonetheless, city bureaucrats decided that the capsule-opening event was important enough that more political bigwigs should be invited at a later date.
The event Wednesday morning essentially was a staged re-enactment of the stone's actual unsealing on Tuesday afternoon. And the event yet to be scheduled--the formal opening of the time capsule--will be the third act in the city's extended drama involving the cornerstone.
City historians said Huntington Beach always has extended ceremonies when anything is related to its pier. For example, they noted, the 1914 dedication of the cornerstone took an entire weekend. The dedicatory ceremonies featured two days of baseball games, high dives, swim contests, band music, prayers, sermons and dances.
Color and history are important to this old beach city, Mayor Peter M. Green said. "We are very aware of our historical background," Green said. "When we asked residents here what they wanted the new pier to look like, they said they wanted it to look as much like the old pier as possible."
Doug Langevin, a downtown businessman and member of the Historic Resources Board, also waxed philosophic while discussing the city's feeling for history.
"Saving the cornerstone of the pier is very important to the community," Langevin said. "Items of this nature give us an anchor to the past. Without an anchor to the past, we're a rudderless ship; we don't know where we're going. . . . This type of thing allows us to join hands with the people of the past."