muckraker report

Photographer steals 135-year-old church cornerstone that may contain historic time capsule

Cornerstone ChurchThe city of Detroit and local historians want to know why a local photographer stole a several-hundred-pound cornerstone from a 135-year-old church after it was demolished last month.

CornerstoneSome historians and local pastors believe the cornerstone at the former St. Peter Lutheran Church on the east side contained a time capsule with valuable historic artifacts dating back to 1878.

But no one knows for sure because photographer Sean Doerr, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies, stole the cornerstone with a friend, both of whom boasted about the theft on Facebook. Doerr has rejected requests to have it reviewed by experts and declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Happy birthday to myself!” Doerr, the photographer for “Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins,” wrote on Facebook.

The author of that book, Dan Austin, parted ways with Doerr nearly two years ago. The pair also operated www.buildingsofdetroit.com. When Austin left, he launched the popular site, www.historicdetroit.org.

In the late 19th century, it was common for new churches to store copper or lead time capsules in cornerstones. They often contained photographs, Bibles, currency, newspapers, jewelry and other items to give a snapshot of the time.

Cornerstone Traditionally time capsules are opened during public ceremonies.

“We are taking this issue very seriously, as this is a form of illegal scrapping,” said Melanie A. Markowicz, president of Preservation Detroit, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s unique history. “The cornerstone is a very important part of our shared heritage, and as such it should be studied and properly documented so that all Detroit residents may benefit from the knowledge garnered.”

The church on Pierce Street and Chene changed hands several times before becoming the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church, a predominantly black congregation founded in Detroit by George Willie Hurley , according to our friends at Detroiturbex.com.

Like many things in Detroit, ownership of the church has been a mystery.

It was demolished last month as part an ambitious, public-private project to level eight blocks of decay near the Eastern Market.

Demolition crews at the time said they did not know the cornerstone was stolen.

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  • FYI Brick Removal is Crime

    Detroit, Michigan, Code of Ordinances

    Sec. 38-4-7. – Removal of bricks, piping, etc., from vacant buildings.
    It shall be unlawful for any person; except an officer, employee or contractual agent of a governmental agency in the performance of a public duty; to remove bricks; piping; plumbing, lighting or heating fixtures or appliances; iron, brass, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum or other scrap metal materials or other appurtenances from any vacant structure in the city without the express written authorization of the property owner, lessee, agent or trustee thereof

    • fyi dumpster diving is legal

      But that is removal from a building. This photographer took a piece of stone from an already demolished building, saving it in a pile of rubble from going to its destination in the landfill. The author of this blog should come out and state his personal issues with this guy-

  • Liam Collins

    It is extremely hypocritical for anyone from Preservation Detroit to be talking about the illegal taking of artifacts when members of their Board of Directors are jumping over fences to steal from demolition sites themselves. As preservationists, they should be working with the owners of the property and the contractors to secure and preserve these ‘heritage resources’ in an ethical manner through easement rigths purchases or donations rather than encouraging illegal trespass and theft in the name of ‘saving’ anything. Perhaps this is too much like hard work for Ms. Markowicz and her organization and they would rather play the hypocrite and admonish Doerr publically for doing the same thing they do, albeit he was dumb enough to get caught?

  • chris

    Well maybe the historians and local pastors should have been there to retrieve it themselves if they were so concerned about it.

  • Adamkir

    The only sad part about every time someone releases stores such as this out encourages otherwise ignorant thieves that they can potential make money off snagging or smashing cornerstones to see if there its antique or valuable contents. So I can already see dumb asses destroying and stealing the contents of many more cornerstones now… Over one that may not have contained a thing.. Shame.. (rolling eyes)

  • EastsideAl

    Why all the (not very well disguised) personal animus? And, since it clearly exists, why is that personal relationship not disclosed in the story? It serves to render the story less than honest for all the reasons pointed out above. Frankly, it sounds to me like Sean beat Steve to the stone, and now he’s feeling burned. Why else all this fuss over just the type of architectural and historic artifact that is destroyed every day in this city with barely a second thought by anyone?

  • dennis plucinsky

    The last picture appears to show the cornerstone broken open with a hollowed out core. I could speculate that a sledgehammer or something similar was used to bust the cornerstone and any possible contents (time capsule) were removed from the site. Interesting story. Sure would be nice to get some follow-up info.

  • Peetah

    How long was this cornerstone sitting in rubble before it was taken? Who, amongst pastors and local historians and Preservation Wayne representatives, were searching for it or even knew it existed?

  • Ailish

    I’m confused. If the church was under demolition, and no one else was trying to preserve the cornerstone, and the cornerstone was in pieces (as per photo)… how is it steeling? I’m not defending or taking sides – I don’t know anyone involved, I just stumbled across this story and the oddness caught my eye. I’m simply saying I’m confused by the story and the accusation.

    A side not – it seems like if people want to preserve Detroit, and are apparently failing, perhaps the in-fighting of the preservation community is not helping the cause but exacerbating the problem.

  • b

    im late to the comment thread but if he has an ebay account (and i have heard he sells “artifacts” on it) look through past auctions to see what hes sold.

    • Steve Neavling

      There is truth to that. We are trying to track down his account. If anyone has any tips, email us at sneavling@gmail.com. Thanks much!

  • preserve_the_d

    Steve, did you know stuff was stolen from DFD yesterday? Power is out at engine 48 today and not expected to be restored until monday. Just wanted to offer you some news tips.

    • Steve Neavling

      Thank you! I do know about the power being out at Engine 28. That’s insane. Tonight was bad for the east side. Three fires in a few-block area consumed every company on the east side. That means if a fire broke out anywhere else on the east side, no one would have been able to respond. I’m writing that story as well. The city is on the brink of a disaster.

  • http://www.detroitfunk.com dETROITfUNK

    Okay – am I right that none of you care about that cornerstone ? You are all just wailing about the “time capsule” that somebody assumes was in it – RIGHT ? If any of you or the owners of this blown out blighted property cared about the historic significance of that cornerstone, it would have been properly secured and removed before it was demolished with the building. You did not, so it was not.

    If there was a time capsule with all the valuable things suggested by the author of this article, then somebody should be asking the demolition people what they did with those items after they removed the cornerstone from the building. You think the demo guys dont know to look for things like that ? I dont know what actually happened – no more than anybody here – but isnt it due diligence to investigate such things before publicly naming and accusing a person ?

    If the Muckraker does not know for a fact that there was a time capsule, and does not know what or if anything was in the time capsule, and has no evidence or information proving that somebody found and removed and retained the time capsule from the cornerstone……THEN WHAT IS THIS ARTICLE ABOUT ?

    Again, nobody really cares about the crappy broken cornerstone that was taken from the demolition site of the burned and abandoned church building, as demonstrated by every single living human being on earth that never bothered to do anything about it – aside from the one person who salvaged it from the demolition. Everybody is wild with the idea of treasure in that hypothetical time capsule…And nobody here can prove it ever existed, what might have been in it, or who actually took it.

    Demanding to “investigate” the cornerstone ? Even if that tells you there was a time capsule at some point – that doesnt prove who may have taken the time capsule, does it ? No, it does not.

    • Steve Neavling

      After reading this, I’m not sure we read the same story. I am not demanding an investigation. I never said I knew with certainty that a time capsule is in there. I gave Sean nearly a week to respond. He never did. I told the story as straightforward as possible. People can make their own conclusions. You might think a cornerstone isn’t important, but many people do, including the sister congregation. Thanks for your opinion.

    • Let’s chill out

      Steve..the title was a bit of a stretch. I don’t see any evidence to insinuate that Sean took the capsule. The photos posted on his site clearly shot fragments of the cornerstone. To take the leap you did in isn’t being fair. I would say the demo crew most likely snatched it. I don’t know many of the explorers/photographers that don’t pick up a souvenir or two amongst the rubble of Detroit. Not saying it’s right…but to devote an article with such an accusation with only a few photos of brick fragments is goint a little overboard.

  • Emily

    I don’t see why this has caused an uproar. Beautiful historic architecture is destroyed everyday in the city. I’m sure many of them contain something that is valuable in some way or another. The church was a pile of bricks. If the cornerstone was so valuable, why wasn’t Preservation Detroit there at the time of demolition to take it ASAP? I’m sorry but I applaud anyone who cares enough to grab a piece of Detroit’s history that is sitting in a pile of rubble waiting to be leveled. It’s not like the city had plans to renovate the church.

    • b

      save a piece of history? sure thats admirable, but putting it up for sale on ebay? not so much…

  • preserve_the_d

    Steve. You might consider explaining your personal history with Sean Doerr and the fact that you believe he’s racist and why you were relieved of your duties with his website.

    • Steve Neavling

      The story was very straightforward. I gave Sean almost a week to respond. Does anything in the story make you think I am biased? … And I’m not sure what you are referring to about the BOD website. I just removed my name as a moderator of the FB site because I didn’t want to be associated with people who make fun of poor black people. Hope that helps.

    • preserve_the_d

      it was my understanding you were removed from being a moderator on Buildings Of Detroit’s facebook page because you accused MR. Doerr if being racist. Am I mistaken?

      • Steve Neavling

        No, I removed myself. I didn’t even contribute to the page after Dan Austin left. He was the reason I was a contributor.

  • preserve_the_d

    Steve, was this cornerstone found on public property? Also, what if any crime do you believe was committed? I like your work but to me, it sounds like this is more a hit piece than actual news. I find it strange that you would do a story about Mr Doerr who actually fired you from his website after you called him racist on HIS facebook page. I just find your story questionable.

    • Steve Neavling

      Again, I was not fired from “his” Facebook page. That was also operated by Dan Austin, whose contributions to Detroit are countless. He left the site as well. I have no problem with Sean. I wish him well. I don’t hold grudges, and I definitely don’t let them affect my reporting.

  • Dave Gifford

    So many buildings are in bad shape (poor structure, water damage, vandalism) and their owners are not held accountable, many of these right downtown in plain view. This has to stop. I feel these items should be removed by a contracted group of preservationists at the expense of the owner before they are lost forever to fire or other physical damage otherwise, they are just left to chance. I don’t condone the theft of architectural items but what if that is the only way to guarantee their survival?

  • http://motorcitymuckracker charles

    … if the church was “demolished” it was no longer a “church.” It was a pile of rubble at that point. What would have been the fate of the corner-stone, had Doerr not “saved” it? Would it be in a landfill? Better with Doerr if a landfill was the alternative!

  • Bomber

    How much shit has the “muckraker” stolen while breaking and entering and taking pictures where he shouldn’t be in Detroit?

  • IncarcerateSeanDoerr

    What a tool. Ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

  • Dexter Finkell

    “The cornerstone is a very important part of our shared heritage, and as such it should be studied and properly documented so that all Detroit residents may benefit from the knowledge garnered.”

    I’m sure the next article will about how Preservation Detroit is going around and securing all the cornerstone timecapsules at all the other abandoned churches around detroit. Right?

    Since PD and many here are wagging fingers at the guy… would anyone have known it existed if he hadn’t have gloated on FB? The way I see it, whatever’s in it, only survives because he removed it. If he hadn’t it’d be in the dump now. Why does he owe a duty to return it to anyone?

    • Steve Neavling

      Great points, but there are people who want it and were planning on getting it. And so far Sean has been unwilling to hand it over. It’s not for me to judge whether Sean did or did not do the right thing. That’s what’s interesting about this – there’s no clear right or wrong.

  • John W

    sounds like this was the work of “partyburglar”

  • Ernie

    I remember years ago when he forgot his lens on the roof of the Broderick Tower so he calls the owners and made a ‘deal’ that if he was able to retrieve his lens then he would tell them how photographers were entering the building. What a tool.

  • Chris

    He’s probably jizzed all over it by now, so they wouldn’t even want it back.

  • Tim

    He obviously pulled it from his Facebook page as it is no longer there that i can see.

  • http://shadowsandrust.com Ethan Wallace

    It’s amazing how often when I read things about Detroit or discuss photography and abandoned buildings in Detroit this guy’s name comes up and NEVER in a positive way. I’m sure he’d be the first to call someone else out if they had done the same thing. What an ass.

  • http://www.facebook.com/frank.nemecek Frank Nemecek

    I have known Sean Doerr for several years. He used to despise people who did this sort of thing.

    • SeanDoerrIsATool

      If you steal it then it won’t be there for him to steal.

    • Bomber

      The same sort of thing the “muckraker” has been doing for 3 years since he came to Detroit?

  • bebow

    Here’s the Detroit as a tabula rasa, wild west environment in action: Take and do whatever you want.

  • Peter

    Any relation to Emily Doerr of Hostel Detroit?

    • Emily Doerr

      I know Sean but we are not related. I do not condone his action.

    • http://www.facebook.com/frank.nemecek Frank Nemecek

      No, I know both individuals and they are not related.

  • Ted

    Not surprised.

  • Erin

    Terrible. I’m doing whatever small part I can to encourage him to do the right thing and return the cornerstone. Thank you social media.