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The vault in the Space 530 coworking space in New York is now a conference room.

Safe Spaces

These days, a bank vault is as likely to hold cocktails—or gym equipment, or a condo lobby—as cash. And who can blame people for repurposing the rooms? They look great on Instagram.

A bank vault is undeniably fascinating to look at: the thick circular door, the iconic swirling locks, the heavy cylindrical bolts. It’s a curiously appealing form, even if its designers, for obvious reasons, prioritized function. The vault’s fortitude is also a tribute to human ingenuity. Thieves rank among the planet’s most creative and determined cohorts, deploying all manner of cunning and force that a successful engineer must defend against. To consider the door of a vault—its intimidating mass, its fussy technical complexities—is to confront greed, fear, distrust, and paranoia, as well as systems of control and the aggressive desire to thwart those systems.

The lobby of The Bank Building at 300 West 14th Street in New York.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just a fun backdrop for cocktails.

The vault door at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in New York.
Wine, decorations, and safe deposit boxes inside the vault at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in New York.

Since 2009, about 9,000 bank branches have closed across the United States, a 10 percent decrease, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Industry consolidation and evolving consumer habits are the primary reasons for the decline of brick-and-mortar financial centers: We do a lot of our banking electronically now, and if we need actual, physical cash, we can easily get it from a machine, meaning that there are fewer reasons for depositors to visit banks with vaults.

Closing the vault at the The Brooklyn Bank event space.

But many places that contain a vault are now attracting other sorts of customers. They have been repurposed as restaurants, bars, gyms, apartments, hotels, cafés. Not unlike onetime factories transformed into airy lofts, former banks–turned–retail spaces have become markers of hip urbanism and economic transformation.

The vault at the Woolworth Building has been converted into a storage room for the building’s maintenance staff.
Inside the vault at the Woolworth Building.
The maintenance staff’s notes cover the safe deposit boxes inside the vault at the Woolworth Building.
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There’s also a workaday reality behind the trend of banks being converted to different uses but keeping the vault: Old bank vaults, with elements like 18-inch-thick steel-reinforced concrete walls, are really hard to dispose of. (At least two vaults apparently survived the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima, their contents intact.)

The vault at Butcher & Banker restaurant in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel.
Safe deposit boxes line the walls at Butcher & Banker restaurant in New York.
Candles and safe deposit boxes at Butcher & Banker restaurant in New York.

Such durability and resilience probably explains some of the vault’s appeal. A Brooklyn event space’s “Art Deco Vault room” features “three original doors weighing up to 60 tons”—visually appealing backdrops for the Instagram accounts of the 500 guests who can fit into the 7500-square-foot space.

Outside the vault at the Skylight One Hanson event space in Brooklyn.

Recently, a friend of mine in Austin sent me pictures of a real-estate development called Foundry, which is not an old industrial foundry converted into live/work spaces, but new construction designed to signify some connection to a manufacturing past. No matter that such a past has almost nothing to do with the history of the city—Foundry needed a partial brick facade to give authority to its motto of “founded in innovation.”

Detail of the vault door at the Weylin event space in Brooklyn.
Detail of the vault door at the Weylin event space in Brooklyn.
Entering the vault at the Weylin event space in Brooklyn.

It’s easy to see a similar fate for bank vaults. As they become ever more popular design novelties in fashionable gathering places, why wouldn’t future residential and commercial developers fabricate ersatz vaults—safe deposit boxes protected by massive doors, but built of cheaper materials that merely mimic the goal of defending physical money or objects? Because even though modern thieves and marauders are more likely to commit their crimes using computers now, we all understand the functionality of a 60-ton door that can be sealed shut to keep out villains, the elements, or huge explosions. There’s some comfort in remembering, or just imagining, what that was like. It makes us feel safe.

The vault door at the Weylin event space in Brooklyn.
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