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Treasurer's office boasts state-of-the-art vault

Lawrence Pierce
State Treasurer John Perdue shows off the vault in his office. The door weighs 16 tons.
Lawrence Pierce The left wall of the vault is lined with safes, which are rented to state agencies.
Lawrence Pierce The air vent in the vault was part of the design in case someone got stuck in the vault overnight.
Lawrence Pierce Opening the vault -- located in the state Treasurer's Office -- every morning requires two people. A safekeeper only knows one half of the vault's combination. Each night, the vault is set on timers so it can't be opened again for 16 hours.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's $1 million in cash sitting on a table inside the state treasurer's vault.

But there's a catch -- all the money is shredded.

Treasurer John Perdue keeps the sack of it around so the thousands of children who tour the vault each year can say they've held a million dollars.

"Watching these kids try to pick this bag up is really funny," Perdue said, making an attempt to lift it.

Perdue and spokesman Greg Stone showed off the vault at the Capitol last week. The vault, which was built in the early 1930s, was designed to keep money safe during an era when bank robbers ran rampant. Now, it primarily serves as a piece of history for the state.

As the Capitol was being completed in 1932, Treasurer W.S. Johnson worried about thieves breaking into the basic vault architect Cass Gilbert had planned, so he asked Gilbert to come up with something better.

Johnson's request tacked between $30,000 and $40,000 onto the cost of the project, which was a large sum during the Great Depression, Stone said.

Later correspondences revealed Gilbert's hesitation about building something that secure.

"'God, I didn't know if we could pull that off or not,'" Stone said, wiping his brow as he imitated Gilbert.

The finished product is essentially a vault within a vault, Stone said. The outer vault is made of three layers of steel, and the inner vault has concrete walls almost two feet thick, reinforced with more steel.

In its heyday, gunmen manned the vault. On Tuesday, Perdue led the way up a flight of stairs adjacent to the vault and onto a floor that now contains offices. He banged on the wall shared with the vault and explained that his guess was it used to be open, so gunmen could perch there and watch for thieves. 

"If you had all the money that was ever kept in this, you'd have trillions," Perdue said.

Although the vault no longer holds cash or functions like a bank, some of the ritual surrounding it remains. The door to the vault weighs 16 tons, and on the inside of the door, behind a panel of glass, are three timers. Every weeknight, they get set 16 hours ahead, and the vault won't open until the timers run out, even if someone enters the correct combination.

And getting the door open always takes two people. Safekeeping assistant Caroline Chamness said she knows only half the combination -- someone else has to help her open the vault each day.

Inside the vault, the left wall is lined with small safes that are rented to state agencies. The vault contains about $55 million in bonds and also holds old diamonds, stamps and coins, Stone said.

During tours, another favorite with the children is the inner door to the vault, Perdue said, because it makes the vault look like a jail cell. He grabbed the barred door and pulled it shut, chuckling as it dinged like an old-fashioned bell.

The vault also contains an air vent, just in case someone gets stuck inside. Pulling down on the lever releases air, and there's also a dim light bulb, Chamness said.

A person who got locked in the vault wouldn't die, she explained, but "it would be a long night."

Perdue said there are old banks and county courthouses that still have vaults, but he's traveled all over and has yet to see one like Charleston has.

"It's amazing," Perdue said, as he grinned at the vault. "It's very interesting."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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