EL DORADO FOUND: 33 Liberty Street (Geologic City Report #9)
12.07.2010, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“The gold vault remains today as it was eight decades ago. Eighty feet down, built on Manhattan’s bedrock, it can support the massive weight of hundreds of thousands of gold bars.” – Federal Reserve Bank of New York exhibition text

Once the revolving door shuts, the guide said, there’s only enough air for a human to live 72 hours, though that theory has never actually been tested. We were also told that the security guards are incredible marksmen thanks to the firing range inside the building.

Welcome to the gold vault at 33 Liberty Street, also known as the New York Federal Reserve Bank. It is one of 12 reserve banks located in the United States. The New York branch stores the most gold of all the reserves, and houses the largest known concentration of gold in the world. More than 120 organizations, countries and banks store gold in the NY Federal Reserve.  For free.  It’s “an act of good will between nations.”

It was this massive geologic accumulation that drew us to enroll in the free public tour, offered six times daily. The idea of a massive stockpile of gold in New York is fascinating in itself, conjuring images of the fabled El Dorado nested within the subterranean depths of Manhattan. In reality, the tour is less glamorous (are security check points ever glamorous?). It includes histories of the Bank, notable counterfeit schemes, an elaborate collection of rare coins, and several exhibits about modern banking practices.  But for school groups, tourists, and locals alike, the most popular part is the expedition down to the gold vault.

The vault is located five stories beneath the street, on top of New York’s granite bedrock. After exiting the elevator and watching a short film, our small group walked through a narrow hallway and paused in front of the thin blue gates. On the other side: 7,000 tons of gold with an estimated value of about $275 billion dollars.

a Swiss gold bar, image from wikicommons

The New York Federal Reserve bank is a place where humans have encased geology within geology.  They’ve unfolded and refolded stratifications of limestone, sandstone, iron and gold so they could put the gold on the inside–where it can be hyper-protected because of its high, human-assigned value.

“Gold is as old as the earth itself, and found and extracted on all continents” – Federal Reserve Bank of New York exhibition text

If you start in the vault at the core of the building and work your way out to the street, you travel  through cosmic and geologic time. The gold behind the blue gates is pre-earthian. This purified element was born of supernova (of the type II variety) shortly before the earth coalesced. Next you pass through solid Manhattan bedrock (450 million years old), up through the building’s walls composed of Indiana Limestone (Middle Mississippian, 335-340 million years ago) and Ohio Sandstone (Early Mississippian, 350 Million years).

Finally, you’d exit onto the street.  There the Anthropocene rules.

We had to laugh when we were told that when a client of the NY Reserve sells gold to another, the exchange is done manually, literally by hand and cart. Even in the age of digital trading and cyber stocks, an employee of the NY Reserve loads the purchased gold bars onto a cart and rolls it over to the buyer’s designated area. This analog exchange is a human-scale chess game playing out in the basement of New York with elemental geology as the pawns.

orange veins running through Ohio Sandstone

The materialities that compose the Federal Reserve Bank and are stored within its vault are prime examples of geologic material-as-flow. Each of them:  limestone, sandstone, gold and magnesium (used by workers in the form of protective shoe clips) was extracted from the earth far from Manhattan. Each is a unique contributor to the economies that constitute modern mineral extraction involving elaborate, earth re-shaping processes of mining, refining and transportation.

Much of the gold stored here arrived just  before World War II.  Far from Europe, the NY Reserve was thought to be secure. Not much has changed in the last 70 years, as the same bars remain hidden in the fabled depths of the Reserve.

Despite the fact that nothing we saw, read, or heard in the vault appeared “highly classified,” we weren’t allowed to take photos or write notes while in the gold vault.  And we could view only a small stack of bars obscured by the blue gates.  It seems what makes gold so precious are the  mysterious, even mythical rituals and aura ascribed to it by humans throughout most of recorded history. Simply the idea of its existence as a “deposit” in the NY Reserve vault, even today, has great economic and political value. This cosmological material is activated by the human imagination in ways that give it ever-changing “values” as it moves both concretely and abstractly through the world’s shifting seats of power, wealth, and “national security.” It appears that its state of being just out of reach (for most of us) perpetuates a human desire to accumulate, and hide, more gold.

| additional Geologic City reports can be read here: intro, 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 |

8 Comments so far
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Hi guys and gals,
Great report!
Saw this article about stone money that I thought you might enjoy, as it is also at the intersection of geology and money…

Comment by Billiard Traveler

Oh and even beyond that, the story in NPR links to a 1991 Milton Friedman paper comparing this island’s peculiar methods of use of its stone money to New York’s Federal Reserve Bank transferring money to the Bank of France in 1932 by earmarking the gold in its vaults. Awesome.

Click to access getWorkingPaper.php

Comment by Billiard Traveler

Hi Gabriel,
Thanks for the great links, fascinating!

Comment by FOP

[…] ELDORADO FOUND: 33 Liberty Street (Geologic City Report #9) « Friends of the Pleistocene […]

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[…] Manaugh points us towards this great post about touring the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s gold vaults. Essential reading for […]

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[…] . Full Geologic City field reports can be read on the Friends of the Pleistocene blog: Introduction 1. Pre-Earthian New York City: Inwood Hill and Fort Tryon Park 2. Forces Beyond Time: Shinran Statue 3. Staten Island’s Tainted Edge: 2377-2387 Richmond Terrace 4. Stepping into Time: Rock Stairs 5. A Portal into the Present: Newtown Creek Nature Walk 6. Monument to the Miocene: Rock Salt Warehouse 7. From the Top of the Heap: Freshkills Park 8. Urban Infrastructure as Geologic Material in Motion 9. El Dorado Found: 33 Liberty Street […]

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[…] produced thusfar, including reports on the use of trisassic sandstone in Park slope brownstones, the materiality of the Federal Reserve Bank and its precious holdings, the designed interaction between humans and glacial schist in Central […]

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[…] City reports can be read here: intro, 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 […]

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