Most people who descend into the basement of Bowdoin College’s oldest building, Massachusetts Hall, are probably looking for a bathroom, not investigating the building’s 200-year-old history. 
Although Massachusetts Hall has a storied past—having housed the president’s residence, student dormitories, library, classrooms for the Medical School of Maine, and administrative and faculty offices since the building’s completion in 1802—one isn’t immediately struck by the weight of this history when they enter the dim basement. 

Instead, one might notice the exposed piping and wiring, a pile of discarded window screens, cabinets filled exclusively with light bulbs, an English department storage space, and one door cryptically marked with the words “Keep door closed!!” 

Most students probably waste no time getting out of the bizarrely mundane place as soon as their business is done. 

However, nestled behind the creaky set of basement stairs is a porthole to one of Massachusetts Hall’s past lives: an enormous black safe. The six-foot-tall walk-in vault, with “Bowdoin College—1915” emblazoned across the top, looks like a set piece from a bank in a Hollywood western. The massive combination lock inscribed with “The Mosler Safe Co.” adds to the mysteriously vintage feel of the vault. 

What then, is this mammoth safe still doing in the English department’s basement? Does it hold money? Records? Defended English honors theses? Is it the true resting place of Nathaniel Hawthorne? 

The answer, provided by Controller Matthew Orlando, is slightly anticlimactic: the safe in Massachusetts Hall is empty. 

“It is a vestige of the 1940s and '50s when Mass Hall housed administrative offices, but any contents have long since been removed,” said Orlando. 

He explained that the safe still remains in Massachusetts Hall only due to logistics, noting that “the location and weight of the safe itself made it too difficult to move when administrative offices were relocated to the Hawthorne Longfellow Library in the '60s.” 

The safe used to sit in the Controller’s Office—which oversees student billing, accounting and financial reporting—and was most likely a temporary repository for the cashier back when tuition and fees were often paid in cash, according to Orlando. But online billing for student accounts has obviated the need for a physical campus safe. 

Though it has fallen out of use, the vault itself can still be opened. 

“I opened the safe a couple of years ago to confirm nothing was inside,” said Orlando, seeking to dispel popular myths about the safe’s contents and rumored impregnability. 

The shroud of mystery is gone, though if you are in the Massachusetts Hall basement, you should still take a look at the safe to the left of the stairs.

 It is both architecturally impressive and an artifact of Bowdoin history, even if the only thing it is collecting is dust.