A few years ago I went into the Rutherford County Judicial Building on business. While there I noticed a large bank vault. The door to this vault had to be nearly a yard wide. Over the years I’d thought about that vault. Mainly it’s age kept bring me back to thinking about it. On the inside of the vault’s door frame there had been a record of each time the vault had been serviced, some of those records dated back quite some time, some in the mid-twentys. I’d always wanted to see that vault again but time got away from me and in 2017 or so the building was closed down because Rutherford County had built a new Courthouse. Great, I’d never see that vault again. Or would I?
Sitting in my car on a beautiful day it occurred t my that I might just have a way to get into the now empty court house. After all, I had a key. Forgotten Tennessee, my book. So I went to the Rutherford County Clerk’s Office to see who I had to talk to to about gaining entrance to the building. After hitting a few dead ends I was directed to Mr. Ben Mankin, the Facilities Director for Rutherford County, Tennessee. Initially I was just going to leave a number for Mr. Mankin but no, I decided that finding him, and talking to the man in person was the right thing to do, and as it turned out it was. Mr. Mankin was leaning against a brick wall outside his building, smoking a nice smelling cigar. Introducing myself I told him about my wanting to see and photograph the massive vault I’d seen and that I wanted to include it in my next book. Then I handed Ben a copy of Forgotten Tennessee. Ben’s face lit up as he flipped the pages. After a bit of discussion Ben informed me that “Yes, he could arrange for me to see and photograph that vault, and the others too”! There were five vaults in total. Five. I had no idea! And one of the vaults was actually only accessible by going through an underground hand-hewn rough tunnel. We made a date for the shoot and away I went with a smile stretching from ear to ear.
Monday morning, 8am found me on the Murfreesboro Square, parked in front of the old Court House. As I checked over the two cameras I’d brought I found myself telling folks who were trying in vain to open the doors to the building. No one had told these people that the court had moved a block over. Mr. Mankin spilled up to the curb and in we went. At this point Ben Manking gave me a bit of history on the building. Before it was a courthouse, the structure had been a bank, which explained the presence of its vaults. Walking down the corridors I could smell the familiar scent of abandonment. While, the county the kept the lights were on and made sure it wasn’t over run with dust bunnies and burst pipes, it couldn’t keep the once bustling building from feeling like a derelict ship.
The smells that say people are there, that people walk, talk, and fill the space. Those smells are gone, replaced by a less lively odor. The floor was filled with stacks of chairs and assorted building fixtures. and while the lights were on, some had either died or were off since there was no need for the place to be brightly lit up. We immediately made our way to a room off the main corridor and here was my vault.
The shelves and counters that once held office supplies, county files were all bare. Here and there was an box filled with odds and ends and old office chairs seemed sprout here and there from the old carpet.
The vault itself dominated the room, its massive stainless steel door was anchored wide open. My host Mr. Mankin walked me up to the vault and in we went. Inside this were more empty shelves and file cabinets. On the wall was a speaker and an air vent that would allow air into the vault should a person be locked in. Locked in? That was to say the least a frightening idea. Mr. Mankin informed me that it had not happened, but there was an amusing story of it almost happening. The door had a habit of closing on its own, just not all the way. One day a clerk had been tasked with working within the vault. This clerk, worried about being trapped in the air tight space decided to place a metal folding chair in against the vault’s entrance so as to block the gargantuan door for fully closing. Vaults built in the 18th and 19th centuries are damn near indestructible. Their steel doors can often be as thick as three and a half feet. Their weight? Well into hundreds of tons. To. say the least, the clerk’s door stop, the chair, was cleanly sheared in half.
Thirty minutes into shooting the monster I stopped. Inside the door’s deeply set frame were numerous maintenance logs. Each log marked from the day the vault was first used in 1920. I shot the records and then spent another 20 minutes or so shooting just the door to the vault.
I found myself in awe of the thing. It was made in 1920. Its size and weight was beyond me. How did anyone make something like this back then? And, it moved so fluidly, effortlessly! Honestly I was in awe of the structure. As we finished up shooting the main vault Mr. Mankin told me of a person who once approached him about buying the vault’s door. His reply, “Yes, you can certainly buy it, but its staying here in the building”.
Next we went to another room where a smaller walk in vault stood, its door permanently closed. At some point someone had lost the combination. I bet that person got fired. In this the main room of the former bank were discarded and forgotten pieces of furniture and yet another albeit much smaller vault. Its combination lost as well.
I was far from disappointed though. The walk-in vault had a damned cool looking door and I was informed that the next vault was the one where evidence had once been kept. Up we went. This too was a walk-in, and it was newer. Inside there wasn’t much to be seen but it had it’s own feel. There was a somber presence of secrets once kept but now gone elsewhere. I was thrilled to have shot all of this, but there was more to shoot!
Down, down, down we went. At the bottom of a flight of stairs I stood facing an open door to a small room who’s back wall had been torn down. The earth behind it removed and a rough hand dug tunnel stretched out into the darkness. At the end of the tunnel I see a weak light.
To the right, was a sub basement, and the biggest air compressor I’d ever seen. Mr. Mankin informed me that the compressor had run everyday for 60 years, and its death was recent. Offered the choice of which I wanted to explore first I of course choose the long dark tunnel! In order to travers this close space one must make their way bent over, the walls no more than 3 or 4 feet wide and the footing uneven.
The weak light became all lost blinding for a few seconds once I made it out into a room that was creepy, and alarming. Directly in front of my was an ancient looking boars used for stringing electrical line, beyond that a shown up wall with a coffin-like crawlspace. Inside this I could see aged wooden posts as wide as a telephone pole. These posts were compressed under the weight of the building above them.
To my left, another vault door. This one old, a patina of considerable age gave this door a forbidding aspect. Surprisingly it swung on its hinges as easily as the main vault in the bank. We were no longer under the bank, we were now under a building that had been a coin exchange. I continued to study the door’s surface and found its gears still worked.
Upon exiting the tunnel I decided I wanted to see what was in the sub-basement. Here I found the largest air compressor I’d ever seen. This is the monster that for 64 years provided emergency oxygen to the main vault above.
I photographed what I could and then with a few more wondering glances Mr. Mankin and I made our way back up the stairs and out into the open air. I’ve shot many forgotten and abandoned locations. Some were frightening, some sad, others triggered my imagination. This location got all three of those running. Enjoy these photos, because I sure as hell enjoyed shooting and sharing them!
If you enjoyed reading this and looking at the photos, you might be interested in buying a copy of my book Forgotten Tennessee. Its available in most bookstores, Walmart, Target, Costco, anywhere that sells books. You may also order it by following this link https://www.amazon.com/Forgotten-Tennessee-Backroads-Roadside-Surprises/dp/1634991524/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Forgotten+Tennessee+the+book&qid=1578419500&sr=8-1