by Amy Merrick
Immovable Objects, If They're Bank Vaults, Make Nice Restaurants
Breaking into them is easier, Demolition a lot harder; Whom to Call to Do What
When Carl Mason makes a trip to the bank, he has to buttress the floor so it won’t collapse, and sometimes he must blast through asbestos with a blowtorch.
To a demolition man, a bank vault can be downright demoralizing. “I don’t think I’ve ever made money on a vault,” sighs Mr. Mason, a co-owner of Central Salvage Company in Narberth, PA. “They’re nightmares.”
In a changing world, talk about a permanent fixture. Bolstered by tons of steel and concrete, the bank vault is nothing short of a fortress. As banks merge and close unprofitable branches, the vaults they vacate are becoming a weighty nuisance. More Than 3,000 branches closed last year.
Ups and Downs
After a development group bought an old Mellon Bank branch in Philadelphia to convert into a Ritz-Carlton hotel it spent three months and nearly $1 million to transform the main vault into a 6,000-square-foot ballroom.
To remove the steel, workers torched out 3,000 pound sections in the summer of 1993, hauling them out on a tractor. Everything went smoothly until the vehicle fell through the floor.
Vaults remain so intractable that moving them “hasn’t changed much since the pyramid days,” says Glen Tucker, president of M. Lange Incorporated, a Bensenville, Ill., rigging company outside Chicago that specializes in transporting big, awkward objects, including an intact vintage automobile that had been taken up a flight of stairs. And it sometimes comes to the rescue of other movers; one had dropped a safe weighing a ton down a flight of stairs.
The work might not seem worth the trouble, but architects love the opulence of old bank buildings. “Before banking became an electronic business, customers kind of looked to architecture to reinforce a feeling of security,” says Arthur Jones, an architect who helped convert a Philadelphia PSFS Bank into a Loews Hotel.
After renovating majestic old bank lobbies-and sometimes their vaults-hotels and restaurants get pretty elegant digs for themselves. In New Orleans, a restaurant called 56 Degrees decorated the vault it turned into one of its dining rooms with paintings of jewelry.
The Regent Hotel on Wall Street, which took over the building that once housed the Merchants’ Exchange and the New York Stock and Exchange Board, has a conference room that had been a vault.
So many patrons want to dine in the vault at Circa, a former Industrial Valley Bank branch in Philadelphia, that owner David Mantelmacher can no longer guarantee seats in the room.
Visitors there, meanwhile, have spirited away at least 200 keys from the safe deposit boxes lining the walls.
A few enterprising companies are making out like bandits with old vaults. Brown Safe Manufacturing company, in San Marcos, California, has refurbished vault doors, at about $12,000 a pop, for entries to wine cellars, home anti-terrorist rooms (one doubling as a wet bar), and a storeroom for Harley Davidson motorcycles. The tools of successful vault-busters range from the low-tech “headache ball,” a wrecking ball swung from a crane, to an $11,000 diamond-tipped saw. All sorts of equipment-hoists, I-beams, gantries, pulleys and cables –are used to bear heavy doors out of buildings. People in the business say they have never moved an entire vault.
(Bank Branches May Close Down, but Vaults Are Safe)
Don Bellon, who owns a St. Louis wrecking and salvage company, swears by the Brokk250: a 6,750 pound, Swedish remote- controlled machine that pummels concrete with its breaking arm. He says he once saw a Brokk perched atop a 250-foot smokestack pounding away at the building from the top until nothing was left and the Brokk was on the ground.
In Boston, Rubblemakers Inc. recently had to tear off a roof to demolish an old vault. Workers who had installed the door a century ago had an easier time of it: The industry practice at the time was to position a door on an enormous block of ice, and as the ice melted, it would settle into place. The roof was put on later.
Tackling the massive doors sometimes takes more brains than brawn. While building the New York restaurant Nobu in a former Chase Manhattan Bank, developers struggled to breach a locked vault door to build a small service bar behind it. Nobu was stumped until it called in a security expert who suggested trying a common vault combination, 5-0-5-0. A few turns of the dial, and the door popped open.
Vaults are getting harder for criminals to bust apart, because banks and burglars are in a continual game of one-upmanship. When a bank fortifies its defenses with tougher concrete, criminals counter with equipment like the “burning bar,” a point-penetration contraption that looks like a welding unit but punches a series of tiny holes in the vault, eventually forming an entrance. “We go build a 10-foot wall, and they go get a 12-foot ladder,” says Bart Frazzitta, who manages the physical-security division at vault-maker Diebold Incorporated. “It’s a never-ending game of wits.”
For their part, vault builders retain some of the nation’s top break-in experts to test for weakness-Underwriters Laboratories Incorporated, in Northbrook, IL. There, assault specialists wield demolition hammers and torches, all the while timing their attempts to blast through a vault door or wall panel. Their mission is to create a hole at least 6-by-16 inches in size, just big enough for a rather petite burglar to wiggle through.
Though federal laws on vaults were once remarkably specific, down to mandates for 3 ½” thick doors, requirements became more flexible in 1991. Banks just have to have “a means of protecting cash or other liquid assets.” For most banks, that often means installing at least a Class 1 door, which most thwart UL break-in specialists for at least 30 minutes.
Using too-potent explosives at a Security Pacific Bank one day in 1990, a burglar in Indio, CA, discovered just how impenetrable vaults can be. He tried to blow open the vault, recalls Bill Wipprecht, security director for Wells Fargo Company, but ended up burning down the building. The vault, however, survived intact.
A conference room of the Regent Hotel on Wall Street
is a former bank vault. The building once housed the
Merchants’ Exchange and the New York Stock and