Lessons From the Leftover Vault

Jul 22 2011 Published by under History, Landscapes, [Humanities&Social Science]

There are secret places all over New York City--that is, if you can manage to escape the glare of lights and the siren-song of the tourist traps of midtown—but often, they work hard at being a secret and brandish badges of exclusivity. Then there are places that feel like a secret, and when you stumble upon them, it's piques the imagination.

History functions similarly. Sometimes, it teases: you know it’s there, and you have to follow the trail to uncover it. And other times, it remains completely hidden until the right circumstances jostle it from its hiding place.

A friend introduced me to a fantastic spot downtown called Trinity Place—it’s dark, the booths will swallow you, and it's rarely ever super crowded. It's a subterranean location, and it's easy to miss as you walk by because the windows seem to gradually melt into the sidewalk. I know. It doesn't sound particularly striking, but that's because you actually have to walk through the doors to be swept off your feet: Trinity Place boasts two 35 tonne bank vault doors that date to 1904.

Trinity Vault

I was totally captivated by the space—it’s not every day you get to have drinks inside a vault. And in typical fashion, when I got home I tried to find a satisfying explanation as to why those doors are there. Trinity Place sits in the US Realty building, which was built at the turn of the 20th-century to provide office space. The Trinity Place website provided frustratingly few details, focusing on the vault itself and not the context for its placement:

The vault is locked in two turn of the century skyscrapers “New York's original twin towers” at 111-115 Broadway which were completed between 1905 and 1907 by Architect Francis Hatch Kimaball as Gothic twins. We might add at a time when Gothic had not been quite embraced by society. The vault in which the bar and restaurant is located was built by mosler in upstate New York and floated down the Hudson River via barge at which point was transferred to its current position on railroad tracks. “Legend has it that it still rests on the railroad tracks.” The vault is very unique in the fact it has two identical doors weighing 35 tonne each, one door leading into the bar and the other into the restaurant. Formally a secret meeting room for the board of directors. During construction every effort was made to preserve the unique attributes of the space and can be seen through out.

A secret meeting room for the board of directors? What board of directors? Everything I found suggested there was no real reason for these doors to be sitting there. Unable to satisfactorily trace the vault to a potential source, I dismissed it as a gimmick. The next time my friend and I stopped in, I rolled my eyes when he reveled in the atmosphere. "It's a good gimmick," I said. "But a gimmick all the same." And I’d shake my head as he laughed at me. He knew my cynicism masked irritation—I pride myself on being a researcher, particularly when it comes to tracing things through archives, but my leads had had the lifespan of Fourth of July sparklers: they burned bright and fast, and soon they were out.

Fortunately, my cynicism didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the space. And it didn’t completely quell my interest either. A reference to the American Stock Exchange during Wall Street sent me to old maps of lower Manhattan. The NYPL has a fantastic project underway to digitize and rectify old maps of New York City—the maps show the City as it was, but also as aligned to today’s grid. The US Realty Building sits between Thames and Cedar Streets on Broadway. During construction (or prior to), Thames Street was actually moved 90 feet north, which means that the original lot was larger than the present day space.

 

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First Ward Plate Image ID: 1648052, NYPL [Click to embiggen.

It wasn’t a lot to go on, but I kept turning that over in my head. The brief history of the vault doors implied that they were a hold-over, but I had been concentrating on the tenants of the US Realty Building thinking that they had been preserved through the history of the building itself. I should have known better.

Prior to the US Realty Building, the site was home to the Boreel Building, which I understand included a domed courtyard:

The Boreel Building, as many of your readers know, has an interesting plan, which is a large glazed court upon which the inner offices open, but is quite devoid of architectural interest, consisting externally of thin walls to which thin strips of pier are applied, and decorated with frames containing either metal painted in imitation of stone, or stone carved to look like metal painted in imitation of stone.

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1891 map labeling the site of the Boreel Building. [Click to embiggen.

But that’s beside the point. A NYT announcement [pdf] reveals that the Boreel Building was home—albeit briefly, though likely just long enough—to a bank: The American Exchange National Bank. Construction on the US Realty Building was completed in 1907. The vault dates to 1904, which corresponds to the Boreel Building and its financial tenant.

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American Exchange National Bank 1906. Image ID: 806096, NYPl [Click to embiggen.

Could the vault doors at Trinity Place belong to the American Exchange National Bank? This is more likely than the explanation that they’re a pure gimmick. But this exercise is about more than just a possible origin for the vault. It’s about the ways in which we come to information and the importance of being open to subtle cues. Sometimes connections are seamless, but in an environment when the past is regularly paved over, knowing requires contextualization. Where I had gone wrong with my original leads was by limiting the experience I was trying to understand to specific instance. The complete story is only ever attained when the larger context is examined. The vault belongs not to Trinity Place or the US Realty Building, but to the space itself. Good researchers never lose sight of the value of context.

 

 

UE will be back next Friday with a look at another New York/City space.

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