Bank vault to cocktail lounge: The surprising history behind The Vault at the 9

Posted at 1:23 PM, Aug 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-09 13:28:21-04

The Vault, underneath the Cleveland Trust Rotunda, is like a two-way ticket back in time. The bank vaults, which once housed millions of dollars, now take guests on a historical journey — revealing stories of wealth, mystery and former Cleveland power players.


PHOTO GALLERY: Historic vaults get new use in Cleveland


A fascinating past 

Rumors have long circulated that John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie stored their most prized possessions, such as diamonds and heirlooms along with large sums of cash, in Cleveland bank vaults. 

Their wealth reflected a growing banking sector and a booming industrial economy. Fast forward to nearly a century later and these vaults have lost their original purpose, but have undergone a transformation that still reflects Cleveland’s strong past as a leader in banking and its future as a city that is reinventing itself by using historic banks and vaults as a way to highlight an expanding culinary atmosphere.

Kenny Didier, the general manager for The Vault, explained the history of the former bank space turned restaurant.

"I'm sort of a history geek so this stuff really excites me," said Didier.

"In the morning, three guys would come down here [Carnegie Vault] to crank down the floor. The floor would lower and raise in front of the vault. Then the three of them would open the vault and a man would tend the vault," Didier said. The reason they did that is because they would never want to inconvenience Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Carnegie by making them wait to open the vault."

Keeping the history 

Lifelong Clevelanders and developers, Greg and Fred Geis, wanted to keep as much of the historic space the same while modernizing it with lounge-style seating in each vault. 

Inside The Vault, stands four vaults that still have their original doors and placards, marking the name of each vault. The Carnegie vault was the only one to hold safety deposit boxes. The York Safe & Lock Company, The Mosler Safe & Lock Company and the Diebold Vault all held cash.

When the Geis brothers acquired the space in 2014, there were passageways behind the vaults that hadn't been touched in decades. As renovations progressed, so did the discoveries.

A secret speakeasy?

Didier remembers finding a hallway-like passage in the back of the vault. It sits underneath the sidewalk of East 9th Street. Upon further discovery, Didier and his team found old ledger books and a rather an unusual item for bank—a barrel ax.

The Prohibition Iron Ax marked 1901, commonly known as a barrel ax, was found in the back of the hallway. That space is said to have been a former speakeasy behind the bank's vault.

Didier stopped going on self-explorations of the space after an incident that spooked him and two former bar backs. The bar backs later quit after speculations of strange voices and ghost-like vibes.

"I used to come down here with my flashlight," he said. "One day I was down here, I heard someone call my name and I said, 'Hello' and I heard someone say something then I heard the door close and look around and there was no one there. I felt weird and then I stopped coming down here myself."

Walking around the many passageways not typically open to the public, it's easy to imagine how the secret hallways behind the vaults provided extra security to the bank. Tucked away above the lobby, is the Ledger Bar, getting its name from the dozens of ledger books occupying the shelves.

The Vault is among several other restaurants in Cleveland that turned former bank vaults into space for lounging and dining. It's in these spaces that continue to show Cleveland's mark on manufacturing and banking at the turn of the 20th century while reinventing historic spaces for modern use.

PHOTO GALLERY: Historic vaults get new use in Cleveland