The best places are those that never run out of stories. Our headquarters — an Edwardian bank vault beneath Chrysler House — has never had a shortage of stories for us to tell either. Yet we keep finding new ones. The other day, we had the pleasure to hear possibly the best story yet: Two brothers named Alan and Mel Osterman came to visit the vault we now call home — a place they hadn’t seen since their father, Joe, worked here nearly 40 years ago.
In August of this year, Alan and Mel were reminiscing about the vault beneath Chrysler House. Then, a few weeks later, Mel saw a story in the news about dPOP!. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mel said when he saw a picture of our CEO, Melissa Price, standing by the vault doors. “We’d just been talking about this place a few days before. I took a screenshot of the article and sent it to Alan.”
Next, Alan and Mel emailed us to ask if they could come and see the bank vault where Joe Osterman worked from 1928 to 1976. Without any hesitation, we gave them our response: Please come see us!
“This brings back a lot of memories,” Alan said as soon as we took him and his brother down into the basement.
As children, Alan and Mel would take the bus Downtown on warm summer days to visit their father in the vault. “Our mom probably had no clue where we went, but dad would give us free passes to Boblo [Island],” Mel said. They weren’t sure how their father got the passes, but “everybody respected him,” Alan said, “because he had worked his way up the old fashioned way.”
Joe Osterman was born in 1911 and began working in the Dime Building for the Bank of the Commonwealth (BC) in the fall of 1928. He remained with BC until 1976, working in the 1st floor lobby. A few years after his retirement, the basement closed up, and for three decades became a repository for anything from rubbish to art exhibitions. In February of 2013, we [dPOP!] came down and started restoring whatever possible, repurposing what we couldn’t, and making the former BC into our home. And even though a lot has changed, the space remains very much how the two brothers remember it. Particularly the vault room.
Alan, Mel, and their friends, would pass an entire day with amusement rides at Boblo, fancying their father a king (given the ease with which he obtained things like free theme park passes). When 5 p.m. approached, they would return to the Dime Building’s basement to help their dad lock up the vaults.
“Pull out the rubber band,” Mel said when we got to the large bank door. “Believe it or not,” Alan told us, “we used to pull the vault door closed with just this rubber band.” That was a game for them at the time, but also a testament to how well engineered the vault doors had been. Andrew Lemanek (the Cosmic Lint Guardian that oversaw the basement’s design) laughed and told them that the door had been bolted down since, but they were welcome to try. The brothers took the rubber band out, looped it around the door, and gave it a try…for old times’ sake.
They shared many memories, like sorting stacks of pennies their father brought home to find the rarest coins. They told us how their dad let them touch thousand dollar bank notes. Their faces still lit up at the thought. “As a kid, you can’t believe there’s money that valuable,” they said. Such bills were never circulated, though; they were strictly exchanged between banks.
Joe Osterman worked for BC during many milestones: the stock market crash, the news spectacle surrounding BC hiring its first female teller, and the fateful day in 1933 when President Roosevelt ordered every bank in the country to close. When the banks reopened, BC was one of only two Michiganian banks to survive: a point Alan and Mel vicariously take pride in.
“I worked here one summer,” Alan said. “Just one.” That summer was the pivotal one of 1967. Alan relayed his memory of driving Downtown at night with his father, seeing troops on empty street corners holding guns, and watching smoke billow from the roofs of buildings. When asked why his father had come down to the vault in the dead of night, Alan responded, “Dad wanted to check on the bank and make sure it was okay. [It] was his pride and joy.”
That was the devotion Joe Osterman felt toward this space dPOP! now calls home.
We’ve given countless tours of the dPOP! vault and collected several stories on the place, but no tale has brought the past to life like this one. Hearing about the way it was through memories of boys who played here with their father 50 years ago brought perspective. There’s a new sense of character in this place, knowing we work in the home Joe Osterman once proudly oversaw.
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