Time Capsules of Glass

Ron Henggeler is a forager, urban adventurer, collector, and the most local of artisans.
Hero timecapsulesofglass

Mar 19, 2014 | By Fredric Hamber

After the 2013 wildfire on California’s Mt. Diablo, Ron Henggeler felt compelled to arrive on the scene to scoop up a gallon of cinders, charred chaparral and a blackened, discarded soda can. The sooty remnants are preserved in an industrial sized olive jar, one of over a thousand of what Henggeler, an eccentric historian and photographer, calls his “kachina jars” after the Hopi Indian word for spirit.

Henggeler delights in his role as San Francisco’s amateur archaeologist. In his house in the Historic Alamo Square Area, bits of Gold Rush-era porcelain fill a jar. Next to them sit early 20th century bottle fragments, unearthed when a utility company was laying pipe.

When the approach roadway to the Golden Gate Bridge was demolished for reconstruction, Henggeler saved a few fistfuls of concrete chunks, still glossed on one side with iconic International Orange paint.

“There’s something about putting stuff in a jar behind glass that frames it and makes you look at it differently,” he tells Huckberry. “If I take this pine cone out, it’s a completely different pine cone from when you put it behind glass. Suddenly you’re looking at it differently. It makes you think about it—the design, the color... There’s this thing that goes on when you encapsulate it. That’s a lot of what these jars are about.”

Some of the jars function as daily journals of found objects and ephemera that pass through his hands: matchbooks, butterscotch wrappers, empty pharmaceutical bottles of his cats’ veterinary medicine. “The jars are time capsules,” he says. “They’re histories. They’re stories. They’re memories.”

Other jars are devoted to single-object collections such as rusty nails, ballpoint pens, and wine corks saved from his job as headwaiter at the Big 4 Restaurant, whose bartenders provide him with the used cocktail olive jars. 

When they are full he caps them with ornamentation: a kitschy bear posed with a marble shard (above) from San Francisco’s original City Hall (destroyed in the 1906 earthquake), a Calumet brand baking soda can, a turtle shell saved from his Kansas boyhood. The leather huarache sandals he wore out during endless days moving his accumulations into his house are preserved in a jar topped by a sculpted figure of St. John Bosco. 

Most tea drinkers don’t think of the paper tag on a string attached to the teabag as a collector’s item. Henggeler’s brand is Red Rose. One jar contains hundreds of the tiny things (below). The kachina jars bring to mind the collage diaries of Peter Beard in three dimensions.

Henggeler’s tales involve jumping cyclone fences on his foraging trips. He laments the security and video surveillance now routinely installed around construction sites. He fondly recalls when San Francisco’s sanitation bureau allowed weekly “throwaway nights” when people would discard any manner of household junk on their sidewalk for pickup. “It was like Christmas all the time,” he says of those treasure hunts.

Henggeler also documents his world through photography. An exhibition of his atmospheric bridge photos, underwritten by Anchor Brewery founder Fritz Maytag, was mounted at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

With an historian’s x-ray vision of his city’s terrain, Henggeler sees forgotten brick buildings where skyscrapers stand, and the sands beneath Golden Gate Park from before it was landscaped. 

He points to a piece of wood salvaged from a landmark 19th century building when it was demolished eight years ago. “Do you know that famous story by Bret Hart, ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp?’” he asks. “He wrote that short story in that building. He was living there. That’s a piece of the wooden foundation.”

Images ©: Huckberry. By Jeff Masamori.