The open safe in Spencer Grundler’s Copycat loft. Photo by Brandon Weigel.
The open safe in Spencer Grundler’s Copycat loft. Photo by Brandon Weigel.

Turns out an assist from Reddit was not required for Spencer Grundler to open the century-old safe he found in a hallway at the Copycat Building.

After consulting the messageboard in May for tips on how to open the 4-foot-tall black safe found in the hallway of the old industrial warehouse, a different lead to a professional locksmith, Advanced Security Safe & Lock, came through, and earlier this month, on the Fourth of July, the safe was cracked.

Well, it had been cracked once before, as evidenced by the drilled hole in the door. So the locksmith, Ben Gholian, put a scope through the hole and turned the cylinders inside until they aligned and a lever dropped, allowing the door to open and giving Grundler the combination.

It took all of 20 minutes, says Grundler.

So was there anything inside? The prospect of finding an old safe that needs cracking lets the mind run wild, like day dreaming about all the fancy purchases to make after hitting the lottery. What if there are stacks of cash in there?

Turns out the odds of finding anything of value are only slightly better than winning the Powerball, employees at Advanced Security Safe & Lock tell me.

“Typically, there’s nothing inside of it. You’ll find some old paperwork and things like that,” says Khurram Khan, who does web development for the company. “Usually there’s nothing of value left behind.”

Gholian, a part-owner of the company who still makes calls as a locksmith, says he tells people that 85 percent of the time, they’ll only find rubber bands, pens or something like that inside after he opens it up.

But this safe proved to be the exception. Grundler excitedly messaged me on July 7 to say he had gotten it open and “found something beautiful inside.” I visited his loft in the Copycat to see for myself.

After Grundler carefully turned the dial to enter the combo–it has to be done with a gentle touch or the rings in the lock will swivel, he says–he swung open the door, revealing binders with unused checks, income reports showing the company that once used the safe made millions of dollars in 1981, a patent form and a car title.

And a manila envelope that had been filled with an undisclosed amount of cash, many of the bills dating to the 1970s.

“The manila envelope was pretty fat,” says Grundler with a laugh. “It was pretty fat.”

There was also a smaller envelope labeled “Soda Money” with loose change and some small bills, also dating back decades.

Grundler is not saying how much, or revealing details about the company, worrying specifics may have the former owner knocking on his door.

And he did what a lot of us would do if we managed to open a safe and found cash inside: start spending it. The first thing Grundler did with the money was head down to the Sagamore Pendry for a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, he says. Grundler didn’t even ask how much it cost, but after telling the bartender the story of his sudden windfall, he says he got another pour on the house.

More of the cash went toward similar indulgences over several days that just so happened to be near Grundler’s birthday.

“Let’s just say I had a really good birthday weekend, and I tipped well,” he says.

A few interesting details about the safe: The inside panel of the door read’s “D.O. Paige’s, Patent, Oct. 18, 1886,” with elaborate striping in the center, and a panel to the side of that unscrews to reveal the intricate lock.

The interior panel of the safe door. Photo by Brandon Weigel.

“The lock is handmade, which I thought was one of the most impressive things,” says Grundler. “Every part of the lock is etched with filigree.”

That drew praise from Gholian, who also noted there was no water damage to the documents or anything inside.

“The brass, it still looks like they just installed it yesterday,” he says. “That’s how neat a job they did back in the day.”

This almost sounds too good to be true, right? But Grundler, a cinematographer who films everything from appearances by local and national politicians to documentaries and narrative movies, captured the whole thing, including the moment the door opens for the first time, perhaps in decades, and the cash reveal.

There’s even a joke version where Gholian opens the door, a yellow light emanates from inside and the locksmith pretends to faint.

Finding a safe that needs opening happens more often that you might think, say employees of Advanced Security Safe & Lock. Moving a heavy safe like the one Grundler found can cost thousands of dollars, they say, so people will often abandon them instead. But as they tell me, it’s unlikely the door will open after many years to reveal a treasure trove.

“This one actually had money in it,” Gholian enthuses.

As they sometimes do in special cases, Advanced Security Safe & Lock uploaded a video to its YouTube page highlighting the job. The contents of the safe have been pulled in the after shot.

YouTube video

Shortly after presenting the old checkbooks with the dated logos and the weathered pages of old office materials, Grundler pulls out another envelope and tells me, “This is the most valuable object in the entire safe.”

When I first talked with him in May, he expressed hope in finding some kind of personal effect inside the safe if he ever got it open, like a letter or an old photograph.

What he got was nine pages of fiction, either the start of a short story or novel. “J. Meyer” is listed as the author, and the title appears to be “Down by the River,” but it could also be “The Summer Surprised.” The manuscript dates Jan. 21, 1981, and the prose appears on a slightly discolored early computer printout.

Why it’s in there along with business documents and money is anyone’s guess.

“I have no idea, not a single clue,” says Grundler. “I don’t know who wrote it, I don’t know why it’s in there. But it is.”

Suddenly handed source material, Grundler thought it was fate that he turn it into a short film. Problem is, that would require going to Alaska, where part of the story is set.

He’s keeping some of the details of the incomplete story close to the vest, but he did let me read the first page and offer a few other plot points: The lead character, Marybeth, is working in a diner in Baltimore as her boyfriend, Pete, goes out to find himself in the wilderness.

The writing reminded him a bit of J.D. Salinger, he says, the way the story is “intense, conversation-driven with a little bit of anguish.”

“It’s probably not a happy story.”

He’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of flying to Alaska, paying the actors and crew and securing props and costumes. (He’s already more than a fifth of the way to his goal, as of this writing.) In an ideal scenario, he would enlist the services of the local casting agency Pat Moran & Associates to fill out the acting roles.

Even if he hadn’t spent most of the money found in the safe, Grundler says the amount in there would not have been enough to cover the costs of the trip.

Fleshing out the ending presents its own challenges, but Grundler is not opposed to coming up with it on his own.

“I want to stay true to everything that’s on the paper,” he says. “But I don’t feel bad filling in the blanks and the things that aren’t included.”

As I make my way to the door to leave, Grundler asks me, “Want a lucky penny?”

Sure, I say. He walks over, grabs one of the coins from the small pile resting on top of the safe and hands it to me.

It’s dated 1980.

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...

One reply on “Mysteries Revealed: 19th-century Copycat Building safe gets cracked”

  1. Ha! I was the person who recommended Advanced Safe and Lock, I saw the post on reddit right after they moved my safe. Gholian is a pro, and a joy to watch working. Highly recommended if this article left you in any doubt.

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