A long-held “secret” vault space built on the west side of Founders Hall, an original building for San Diego’s College for Women in the early 1950s (see photo, left), was removed last week. The action, taken to prepare additional office space for a USD academic department this summer, effectively removed a piece of history.
“This is the end of an era,” noted Sister Virginia Rodee ’57 ’74, USD assistant vice president for Mission and Ministry.
The vault, a cleverly built 96-square-feet of safe-keeping for important school enrollment records and other key information since the institution’s early beginning, was demolished on June 7. Workers used jackhammers and other specialized equipment to bring down the 7-inch thick walls in no time.
While the “secret” vault has been known for a few years, Rodee said for a long time it was a space that only university co-founder Mother Rosalie Hill and original treasurer, Mother Suzanne de Leon, knew. Important documents and money were often placed in a safe within the vault.
Mother de Leon would “stand there and look both ways” before going in the door leading to the vault, Rodee recalled. “No one else knew about the vault. It was a big secret.”
That changed for good when Cel Johnson, USD’s director of institutional research and co-chair of the university’s space committee, came across it in 2008. She was doing an in-person assessment of all campus spaces and sizes. The map she had, she said, didn’t list the vault specifically and the space measurement was noticeably off.
Once it was discovered — there was a 21-square-foot vestibule in front of it being used as a storage space — Johnson, Executive Director of University Design Mary Whelan and Cheryl Gibbons, Facilities Management project coordinator, took action.
Gibbons hired a locksmith to drill open the vault’s door and what was found inside was a safe with such items as building plans, receipts and original loan documents from Bank of America for construction of Founders and Camino halls, Rodee said. Also found was a small box with a note saying the key to the vault was hidden in another safe where the San Diego College for Men was prior to being torn down to make way for what is currently Serra Hall.
All items in the vault are now with USD Archivist Diane Maher, who indicated that the full scope of the contents are still being processed.
“I didn’t know the vault existed until Sister Pat Shaffer told me about it,” Maher said. “I was really excited about the prospect of what might be in the vault, which hadn’t been opened since the 1972 (College for Women and College for Men) merger.”
Maher said the vault’s discovery is a reminder that even now, 63 years after USD’s founding, that there are still missing pieces of the institution’s historical puzzle.
“I’m always curious about places on campus that might, by virtue of being hidden away, still have memorabilia or ephemera (student newsletters, posters, etc.). For instance, I would love to find copies of the first two years of The Vista (student newspaper).”
— Alexandra Hernandez-Bandala and Ryan T. Blystone