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Notes from the underground: the treasurer’s vault

The door to the state treasurer's vault. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg

Welcome to the underground: Treasures, secrets and hidden passageways, right here in Sacramento. Well, sort of.

The steps of the Jesse M. Unruh State Office Building across from the Capitol are familiar to tourists, school children and government employees.

But they’d be startled to learn that below their feet is a different world: the state treasurer’s vault.

Open the vault, and a golden glow emerges. No, it’s not money – in fact, there’s no cash at all in the vault.

It’s a super-secure structure guarded by massive walls of concrete and steel, a 23-ton steel door, two combination locks, silent alarms and an array of security sensors. In fact, security is so pervasive that state officials don’t like talking about it.

The inside of the vault looks like a large filing cabinet.

Open the vault, and a golden glow emerges. No, it’s not money – in fact, there’s no cash at all in the vault.

The golden sheen is the light bouncing off the yellow boxes that are neatly arranged on grey shelves in the six gated aisles. Some of the containers hold unclaimed property relinquished to the state from various places, much of it from abandoned safety deposit boxes. The contents typically include family documents, photographs, papers, personal artifacts and the like.

The state controller has the responsibility of returning the contents to the rightful owners – if they can be found.

Capable of holding up to 40 lbs., each package’s contents are not always known to the treasurer’s office, which administers the vault.

The inside walls are white and undecorated, unless you count some framed historical bonds hanging on the aisle’s gates. Dark, wood-laminated planks that convert to tables line the entrance to the aisles for use during audits. A gated room nearby also has empty tables.

On the floor in one of the corners, there’s some rust, apparently from an old crack that allowed water to seep into the vault. The vault has since been resealed, but the repair work is visible on the concrete above.

Once a field trip destination for school children, the 40-year old vault resembles a museum more than a secret chamber.

A decades-old typewriter in the state vault. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

A decades-old typewriter displayed in a secure area near the state vault. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

Photographs dating from the vault’s construction line the wall, while an exhibit of large machines once used for such tasks as hole-punching or stapling sit in the long room adjacent to the vault, which takes up several thousand square feet.

Across from the aisles is an emergency air vent: If someone gets trapped in the air-tight vault, they can open the vent to prevent suffocation.

During a tour, a child pulled the lever, setting off a silent alarm and surprising everyone as a loud swoosh of air was sucked into the vault.

Until 1976, the California Treasurer’s Office was in the state Capitol on the first floor. The old treasurer’s office remains on display in the Capitol, run by the State Department of Parks and Recreation. The display includes the office interior restored to its 1906 appearance, while an adjacent room includes a vault built in 1929.

The late Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, the legendary Assembly speaker who later served 12 years as state treasurer, oversaw the move of the treasurer’s office in 1976 from the Capitol into State Office Building No. 1, also known as “OB1”.

Rooms in the vault where unclaimed property is stored. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

Rooms in the vault where unclaimed property is stored. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

The second oldest state government building, OB1, finished in 1929, sits across the street from the west steps of the Capitol – the state’s oldest government building — and now carries Unruh’s name. The vault underneath OB1’s steps was built in 1976.

OB1 is registered with the National Register of Historic Places and so has original wood door and window frames, marble drinking fountains, ornate ceilings, and a marble staircase. Two telephone booths in the lobby, once busy, are now used by janitors for storage.

According to a 2015 study evaluating state buildings’ condition and risk, treasurer’s building is fifth on the list, requiring lead and asbestos removal, among other projects.

In this list, its rating is better than the state Resources building, which needs seismic retrofitting and has inadequate emergency systems for fire and smoke, but worse than the infamous Board of Equalization headquarters, which is known for its mold, malfunctioning elevators, water leaks, and falling windows.

The staircase that leads down to the underground vault. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

The staircase that leads down to the underground vault. (Photo: Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

Unlike the vault, the building’s other basement section is more public. With exposed conduit, ducts, pipes, and wires running above, this area of the basement used to be the state Agriculture Department’s place to welcome cattle into and conduct inspections. Now the basement is a concrete tomb filled with assorted infrastructure.

And tucked away, past large, insulated metal barrels, are tunnels that are a “remnant of a different time,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the state Department of General Services. An idea borrowed from the east coast, the tunnels were created for legislators to walk between state buildings, he said.

Today, they are used for infrastructure, running telephone and internet cables as well heating and cooling ducts between buildings.

 


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