What To Do With That Old Bank Vault in the Basement?

Kansas City Public Library makes movie magic…

Stacey DeTray Mayoral grew up in the Kansas City area, attending school in Blue Springs before heading off and eventually settling in Mexico City, Mexico. Home for a visit a few months ago, she and her parents made their way downtown and to a place DeTray Mayoral had never visited – the Kansas City Public Library’s stately Central Library.

Top to bottom, the secondary school librarian loved everything about the more than century-old building that originally housed the city’s First National Bank…the columned façade; the marbled-floored grand foyer, Kirk Hall; the colorful children’s library and the fifth-floor rooftop terrace.

But it was a stroll to the basement and the old steel and concrete bank vault that most enchanted her. The vault’s 20-inch-thick, 35-ton, circular door is now permanently opened and leads into a mini-movie theater, the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault. There are 28 theater-style seats. Floor-to-ceiling columns resemble stacked film canisters. It’s an inspired bit of repurposing.

Among other activities, the Library screens movies there every Saturday afternoon (December 2015 featured a series of Hollywood’s biggest Christmas Day blockbusters). The space is also available for rent for private screenings or business presentations. Just outside the film vault is the Library’s collection of nearly 30,000 feature movies, documentaries, television shows and other offerings on DVD, and another neighboring area houses thousands of volumes of books related to the film industry.

“Wow, what any other place would give to have something like this! It’s such a cool use of a pre-existing area,” DeTray Mayoral says from a red-cushioned seat in the vault. “It makes it more interesting, more inviting, doesn’t it? If it’s another library with a (conventional) media center, you might take a cursory look and walk out.”

Bob Lunn worked for the Library for twenty years, the last ten as its audio-visual librarian, and was part of the Central Library’s move into the restored First National Bank building in 2004. The vault was refurbished three years later.

“It was a transformation,” he says. “I just kind of oohed and aahed over the space, what had been done with it.

“You know, there’s not much you can do with a vault. You have the space and, all right, what do we do with it? The solution seemed really ideal.”

The vault dates to 1925, when it was built by the Monster Safe Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. The 7-foot-tall door features two dozen massive, metal locking bolts. There was an early suggestion to convert the space into a children’s area for storytelling and other youth activities, but the theater idea won out. No one, including Lunn, can recall exactly who initially raised it.

The theater was rudimentary at first: a handful of chairs in front of a large television set atop a table and connected to a DVD or VCR player. “If we had eight people stay to the end, it was a major success,” Lund says. A $208,777 donation from the Stanley H. Durwood Foundation – named for the Kansas City movie-house innovator and owner of the chain of theaters that became AMC Entertainment – underwrote the restoration, which sought the look and feel of a mid-20th century movie theater and was completed in 2007.

Lunn, a longtime movie buff, was in charge of choosing which films to screen, and christened the remade film vault with a series of Kansas City-related movies ranging from In Cold Blood to Prime Cut. He also included Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the mannered, 1990 movie starring Paul Newman and wife Joanne Woodward. A fun fact not lost on Lunn: Filmed in Kansas City, it includes a scene shot inside the vault at the time it still was part of a working bank.

Gradually, word about the unique little theater spread and its popularity grew. Like all of its other programming, the Library offers movie screenings free of charge. Saturday afternoon showings now frequently spill over into an adjacent viewing area with a separate big screen, drawing crowds of thirty or forty people.

A typical month sees the Durwood Film Vault host four Library screenings, four more private movie gatherings, three or four private meetings and a half-dozen Library children’s events. One group watched there last October as the Kansas City Royals played in baseball’s World Series. A year earlier, when the Royals made their first Series appearance in 29 years, the Library carried games in the vault for attendees of other evening events who wanted to mosey down and watch the outcome.

Lunn, who retired from the Library in 2009, has made it back to the film vault once – for a screening of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight last May.

“There’s a real difference in my mind between watching a movie in a space like a theater and watching it on a TV or a computer screen at home,” he says. “You get involved in the public response, the oohs and aahs and gasps and laughter. It’s contagious. You kind of get swept up in it, and you don’t get that at home.”

In truth, the Library’s distinctive film vault is the best of both worlds. “Everybody always said it was what you wanted for your home,” Lunn says, “if you could afford it.”

–Steve Wieberg

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