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Gold or Mold? Bank Vault to Open After 30 Years

What if a yellowed skeleton tumbles out? "Ya-hoo," says a cheerful Bryant, a cowboy-boot-wearing native of Savannah, Ga. What if there's only dust? Then, she says, the winner gets a nice gift basket.

The columned, carved fa‡ade of the boarded-up bank caught Bryant's eye on a trip to Richmond three years ago, she says.

She arranged a look inside and discovered a hall of ruined grandeur: ornate, water-stained plaster moldings and columns, large windows that had been painted over, marble-tiled floors and a great rusty vault. "This place needs some help!" Bryant declared. "It needs savin'."

She bought the old bank, along with a large rear parking lot, for about $140,000. Bryant then moved here and commenced $500,000 worth of renovations to the main hall, where she'll host receptions, and adjoining offices, where she plans to live.

While contractors and artisans redid the walls, ceiling, moldings and windows, Bryant turned her attention to the elaborate plaster pediments over the bank's front door. With a tiny metal sewing tool, she picked away at layers of old paint to expose the original details. She was working on the front pediment July 28, she says, when she felt a sudden urge to tackle its twin at the rear of the bank. When Bryant moved her scaffold, she discovered a man's name etched above a plaster tassel, with the date July 28, 1913. "I got chill bumps," she says.

She hasn't experienced any other supernatural tinglings in the course of renovating the place. But Bryant has warm feelings for Freedom House. The staff at the organization's community shelter have provided her electricity, companionship and even a place to live. Bryant is residing in the house of executive director Melba Gibbs while she finishes the bank renovations. "They've been a perfect neighbor to me," she says.— Melissa Scott Sinclair

For tickets to the Nov. 12 benefit, call Freedom House at 233-4064, extension 206, or Bryant at 231-2551.

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