Personal essays detailing predictions for the future, like electric cars. Faded photos of women with big hair and men in oversized eyeglasses. Various “Friends”-themed merchandise. VHS tapes and a chunky boom box with a CD player.
A Natick Mall time capsule sealed 28 years ago, in 1994, was reopened earlier this week, revealing a raft of mementos that defined local and pop culture at the time.
The day was a long time coming for Charlene Leith and Joan Robblee. They were two of the masterminds behind the time capsule project while working for Homart, the development company that bought the old Natick Mall back in 1992.
When that mall was set to be torn down to make way for a more modern two-level shopping center, the team came up with the time capsule idea, said Robblee, who was the marketing manager at the time. It served as a way of preserving the history of the first mall, which opened in 1966, and as a celebration of the grand opening of the new mall.
The capsule was buried on April 26, 1994, packed with memorabilia like menus from nearby restaurants and newspaper articles. The date of its unearthing, Oct. 12, 2022, was chosen because Oct. 12, 1994 was the date the redeveloped mall opened, and 28 years was how long the first Natick Mall had stood.
Leith, 52, has kept in touch with Robblee over the years and the two attended the time capsule event together this week. Leith now lives in Connecticut, but she grew up in Framingham and said the mall holds a lot of cherished memories. There’s even a Facebook page called Natick Mall Memories with nearly 3,000 members dedicated to reminiscing about the bygone mall and the era.
“I’ve really been looking forward to this for the last 28 years, truly,” Leith said. “It was so fun to do and was a really intense part of my career. A lot of hours go into opening a mall, and it was really enjoyable.”
She’d forgotten some of the items in the acrylic capsule, like an inventory checklist and one of the original mall light fixtures. But inside were also magazines full of buzzy stories of the time. One had a two-page advertisement for Camel cigarettes, featuring controversial cartoon mascot Joe Camel.
“It really brought me back,” Leith said. “Everything I saw, I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Look at this.’”
Around 200 people filtered in to see the display throughout the day, which included a DeLorean in a cheeky reference to the “Back to the Future” films, and a mock living room set-up decked out with an old Pepsi can, a CD boom box plastered with pastel flowers, and other memorabilia, said Jennifer Kearney, the senior general manager of Natick Mall.
Hundreds of letters and essays lined the tables, part of a contest held among nearby schools where students wrote about what they thought life would be like in 2022. Many referenced technology and were eerily accurate, Kearney said. Visitors pored over them, some in search of the one they’d written as a kid.
Some people lingered for hours as the Spice Girls and the 1996 hit “Return of the Mack” blared. Most of the items will likely be donated to the Natick Historical Commission.
Sheena Peabody, 39, was among those who stopped by with her family. It was a true blast from the past for the Topsfield resident, who came in second place for the essay she wrote in fifth grade. (Her predictions included a detangling hairbrush and new hairstyles.) The time capsule had slipped her mind entirely until it popped up on the “Natick Mall Memories” page last year.
“It was nostalgic,” she said. “I think there was ‘Seinfeld’ on there, which is really funny because we’re currently watching ‘Seinfeld’ reruns right now.”
Although Peabody does not go to the mall much these days, she said visiting Natick Mall was a walk down memory lane.
“Back then, things were somewhat simpler,” she said. “Whoever lived maybe in that MetroWest area, that was just a positive childhood memory for them. Going to the mall and just getting to walk around and hang out.”