By CRAIG KARMIN
At the Kelvin Arms, a Scottish pub in Houston, the back room is the place to be. Its main attraction isn't the comfy leather chairs, the electric fireplace or the towering knight's armor that guards the space.
It's what the room once was.
"It is cool drinking in a refurbished vault," said Monica Arzola, a college student relaxing at the pub one evening. On her previous visit there, she and friends took photos by the open vault door and posted them on Facebook.
The classic bank vault—with its captain's wheel, imposing steel door and prison bars at the entrance—is fast becoming a relic as older bank branches close down.
But there is something about these confined, windowless spaces that continues to captivate people. The fascination is giving the anachronistic vault a new lease on life, spawning fresh uses its creators could never have imagined.
People are shopping for clothes and antiques in former vaults. They are throwing holiday parties in vaults. Some are celebrating birthdays and even getting married there.
"Once I saw that space, I knew that our wedding was going to be different," says Tova Williams, who walked down the aisle a few weeks ago in the vault of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank in Brooklyn. "We thought it would create an atmosphere of intimacy."
Bank consolidation has led to branch closings for years, and that process accelerated during the financial crisis. Since 2007, nearly 12,000 bank branches across the country have shut down, according to data company SNL Financial.
Closed bank buildings can be turned into almost any kind of business, but what to do with the vault is a creative challenge.
Removing these armored beasts can be difficult and costly. Many of the tens of thousands of banks built during the 20th century included walk-in safes with 20,000-pound doors, 18-inch-thick reinforced concrete walls and rectangular rooms that took up 80 square feet or more.
Removing a vault and knocking down those thick walls can require jackhammers, city permits and forklifts. Costs can run to $100,000.
"It's like trying to get rid of a bomb shelter," says James Cain, who runs the Vault Brewing Co. with his brother John in Yardley, Pa.
So like most businesses that have taken over vacated banks, they opted to incorporate the vault into new surroundings. The vault is used as a cellar for the aging of high-alcohol beers.
Costs and logistics aside, some see it as a sin to destroy these majestic feats of engineering. "They are so beautiful…so unique," sighs Natalie Siman, who ran women's boutiques at two former banks in Ventura, Calif.
In one store, the vault was used as a dressing room, cloaked by a leopard-skin curtain. "People pretended to try on clothes just to check it out," she says. "We told them they could go in there without having to try on stuff."
The South Shore Arts Center in Crown Point, Ind., used its small vault as art-class space for preschoolers. "It was a kid cave," says John Cain, executive director. "They loved it in there."
At the former Brooklyn bank where Ms. Williams was married, venue management firm Skylight Group says it has rented out the vault for MTV bashes and as the VIP room for hip hop artist Kanye West's birthday party last year. The big room has three separate vault entrances.
There were reasons the old vaults were built. Up until the 1930s, when the federal government started providing deposit insurance, runs on banks in the U.S. were relatively common. Much of the population didn't trust these shaky institutions to hold their money.
The construction of a formidable vault was a way for banks to project stability, reassuring clients that their valuables were safe.
Removing today's bank vaults isn't so much of a problem. While many still use the rotary manual combination locks associated with the bank-robber era, most now use lighter materials. Current vaults are made of panels that can be reconfigured, expanded or discarded.
Still, some of the romance has been lost with the modern, sleeker models. Before it opened in 1914, Dominion Bank in Toronto ordered a 40-ton, 4½-foot thick vault door from a manufacturer in New York. The mighty steel disk passed through Toronto like an emperor: It was paraded on a carriage pulled by 19 horses as onlookers cheered, according to One King West, the hotel and residence that now occupies the space.
The hotel, which opened in 2005, considered using the vault as a simulated golf driving-range, but the low ceilings killed the idea for safety reasons.
Instead, it has become a popular event space. Calvin Klein launched Secret Obsession, a new women's fragrance, there in 2008. "Red," a Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman action vehicle, filmed a scene there in which the vault was supposed to be a secure room at CIA headquarters.
All conversions don't make sense. A weekend flea market in the Brooklyn vault put in food stalls featuring hot dogs, lobster rolls and grilled cheese. The low ceilings and the food smells weren't a good mix, says Eric Demby, a founder of Brooklyn Flea.
The former boutique owner Ms. Siman says her insurance company balked at the idea of letting people go inside a vault until she had the locking mechanisms removed.
In Crown Point, the arts center moved to a new location last fall after 13 years because the building's windows were too high for people to look inside. It hurt business. "It never stopped looking like a bank, no matter what we did," says Mr. Cain.
On Fifth Avenue in New York, the owner of a former Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. building has been trying for several months to rent out the ground floor to a retailer. The space is vacant save for a massive vault, propped open just a crack.
That attracted Anthony Peacock, a tourist from London, who began snapping photos one recent afternoon. Why the interest? He paused a moment, then said: "You're not meant to go in there."
Write to Craig Karmin at email@example.com