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My Ohio: $1 billion is kept in its 3-story vault

Posted at 7:31 PM, Apr 15, 2016

On my desk is a two-pound brick of money. 

The 1,000 pieces of U.S. currency are at my elbow, but it would probably take me a thousand years to piece together all of the shreds of what used to be legal and spendable American greenbacks.

The money came from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank which shreds old, tired, and tattered pieces of U.S. currency which it has deemed to beat up for continued circulation.   The Cleveland bank is one of 12 in the Federal Reserve System which is the bank for commercial banks.  In the Cleveland building, there is an estimated $1 billion. 

The federal reserve bank keeps the region's commercial banks' excess cash until that money is needed at the local level.  "Currency comes in every day and gets processed here and then is sent out so that ATMs will be full when people go to their money out of the banks," said Jennifer Ransom, the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank's manager of education and museum outreach.

So intriguing is the thought of one building holding that much money, there is often a line of visitors who want to see as much of it as they can.  However, visitors on special tours booked through the federal reserve can only see just a bit of it as they stand behind a window which looks toward the vault. 

However, at the Money Museum and Learning Center at the bank, located at Superior Avenue and East 6th Street in Cleveland, visitors can walk off the street during visiting hours and see the history of American currency.  There is even a two-story artificial tree which seems to grow money.  The currency which hangs like fruit from the branches are replicas of historic bills of many denominations.

"It's impressive," said Soting Chiang, of Hong Kong, China, who was visiting the bank, marveling at its architecture.  The Cleveland Federal Reserve building was constructed in 1923, 10 years after the Federal Reserve system was established to help regulate the nation's banking system.  The building's lobby, constructed of Italian marble and gilded ceiling, is palatial in every sense of the word.

At the same time, there are heavy bronze doors, very thick walls, and iron gates throughout the structure.

When the system of the 12 banks was built with federal reserve buildings scattered across the country, there was no insurance for depositors' bank savings.  Strength in buildings was tantamount. 

"In 1923, bank buildings -- commercial ones and our federal bank -- were built to instill confidence so that when customers walked through the doors, they realized their money was safe," said Ransom.

The old vault, which is no longer used, once housed all the money.  It's door weighs 106 tons. 

"It's the largest vault door in the world," said April McClellan-Copeland, communications coordinator, as she stood next to the door which is about six feet thick.  So strong is the door, when it was built, explosive experts dynamited similar materials to determine whether the vault could withstand such treatment.  It did.  To add to its strength, the vault was built inside a building which is inside a larger building.  The old vault is now used only for general storage; not money.

The money is kept in a new vault, built in 1997.  It takes up three stories in the building.  Robotic vehicles, each carrying millions of dollars, are easily moved in and out of the new vault.  The money, kept in glass trunks, is stacked like child's blocks from the floor to the ceiling.  Each trunk can hold perhaps a million dollars.  When a commercial bank needs to pull its money out of the Federal Reserve Bank, the order is sent and the robot vehicles are dispatched to retrieve the dollars which are taken through the heaviest of security to money trucks handled by armed guards.

Throughout the bank are security cameras which are aimed at every aspect of the operation.  A total of 750 people work in a variety of positions in the bank.  Those who handle money do so in teams.  No one ever works alone with the money.  "Security is what we do," said Ken Green, vice president of operations.  "There's a lot of glass (windows) around here so there's always an eye on security," he said.

Security is abundant and evident outside the building in downtown Cleveland.  

For those visitors who are able to go on special tours in parts of the building, the bank often gives them gifts.  Small packages of shredded money are given as souvenirs.  But the little slivers of currency given by the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank can never be put back together again.

Visiting hours for the Money Museum and the Learning Center are 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.  Special group tours beyond the museum and learning center must be made through the officials of the bank. 

More information may be obtained online at the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank website, www.clevelanfed.org.