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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Vault Club

Posted By on Tue, Mar 9, 2010 at 12:19 AM

The Vault Club in 1960
  • The Vault Club in 1960
Memphians with a tendency towards claustrophobia — in other words, Memphians like me — were probably reluctant to join a private club that opened downtown in April 1960. The Vault Club was a members-only dining club inside a massive bank vault tucked away in the basement of the 81 Madison Building.

"A door estimated to cost $75,000 — probably one of the most expensive doors in the world — opens onto a room in one of the most unusual clubs ever formed in Memphis," said the Memphis Press-Scimitar, without bothering to mention that a similar door guarded the main vaults at the Lauderdale Mansion. "Nobody seems to know quite how long the vault has been there. It's been in the building for decades. Its brass still shines, but it looks venerable and expensive."

Oh, please. There was really no mystery to it. The vault was presumably installed when the building was constructed in 1907, since 81 Madison was originally home to the Tennessee Trust Company and later Union Planters Bank. Developer Philip Belz bought the 15-story property in 1958, one of the first steel-frame skyscrapers in the city, and converted it into offices.

The Vault Club, he told reporters, "would offer Memphis businessmen the same sort of fine surroundings in which to dine, relax, and talk business which they might find in New York." Assuming they liked to dine, relax, and talk business while locked away in a big bank vault, that is. Luncheon would be offered during the week, and there would be piano music on weekends, "but it is not envisioned as a place where there will be dancing and partying."

No, obviously not. Mainly because staying more than 10 minutes inside this thing gave people the heebie-jeebies. Or maybe that was just me?

Keeping with the money theme, the walls inside the 30-by-40-foot lounge area were decorated with reproductions of old coins and currency, unlike the Lauderdale Vault, which displayed real money, even though it was only three or four framed $5 bills. The private club was limited to 250 businessmen — with the emphasis on "men." Females could not join, though the newspaper observed, "Women guests are welcome after 4 p.m."

Oh, Memphis was such an enlightened, progressive city in the 1960s.

The club, which somehow lasted six years or so, is gone now, but the vault has survived, which is no surprise, because how are you going to get rid of it? That door weighs more than a ton! In 2002, the building was renovated and transformed into the stunning Madison Hotel. The last time I wandered downstairs, the old bank vault, complete with its tremendous brass door, was part of the hotel's fitness center.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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