Removing a vault can cost up to $150,000. There is one such “safe deposit vault” in the north wing of the cellar here. The bank branch windows are now covered in white paper. Its “FOR SALE” sign offers no details, only a URL where almost 150 various bank’s branches are listed for sale. So much possibility.

The realtor. “A gold mine,” they say, describing the endless potential for conversion into something else entirely. A prime “Retail, Repositioning or Redevelopment Opportunity.” Think about the examples we already have — supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants in former banks. So charming.

(These listings do not conjure that heavy traditional image of a bank; these are new listings, for new-ish bank branches. Buildings of today: think stripmalls, corner lots, drive-throughs, and colonial-modernist-pomo-whoknowswhats with ample glass, stucco, faux stone, and interiors of unrestrained wood veneer.)

The bank. Apparently, a physical asset is no longer necessary to access liquid assets. A letter to customers “from corporate,” somewhere far away, announced this branch’s closing; in it, the institution makes three recommendations for future banking needs, all involving virtual or automated services.

The neighbors. They remember it as a bank, under many names, for 50 years or so. The building is 15 feet tall, but today zoning allows for 70. Some want another bank. Others a supermarket. Most share a fear of a new Starbucks. And all worry about those extra 55 feet. They dread a new build with bespoke retail on the ground level and high-end condos upstairs.

The realtors’ enthusiasm. The bank’s instructions. The neighbors’ exasperation. All obliviate the north wing of the cellar, where the safe deposit vault sits.

Here rested secrets.

Cash, heirlooms, jewelry, wills, deeds.

Hidden from view and locked from the world outside.

Guaranteed by small print.

Fortified by layers of entry, a cartoonishly large lock, and many cameras.

A destination for things retrieved only when needed, otherwise at rest.

Their owners enjoying a comfort born of imagining these things among other such similar things.

Effectively buried.

Buried and then secured.

And buried again within each individual customer box.

The vault is the bank, the bank itself a purpose-built structure. A bastion of trust. An anchor of community. A civic confidant. From the heavy traditional fortresses of yore to the colonial-modernist-pomo-whoknowswhats of today to whatever is next (the cloud?), the bank is a refuge.

The realtor assures that this branch is “100% vacant.” It cannot be. Removing a vault can cost up to $150,000.

Neena Verma is a practicing architect, teacher and writer based in New York City. Her work queries the limits of contemporary architectural discourse — culturally, geographically and temporally. She is currently an Architecture Writing Fellow at the Cooper Union, faculty at Parsons School of Design and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and principal of an eponymous practice that pursues small-scale, forward-thinking architectural works.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.



We’ve grown used to things being strange. And to things being very familiar. A series of short texts by architect and writer Neena Verma on the ins and outs of our whereabouts.