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Photo by Chuck James and Ron Wheat
Another view of the circa 1870 metal safe after it was restored for the State of Utah. It was found in the basement of the State Capitol during renovations.

Safes usually protect valuable objects. But an approximately 138-year-old safe discovered during the restoration of the Utah State Capitol has itself become a precious treasure.

The circa 1870 fixture predates the Capitol building by about 46 years. Two local artists and restoration experts returned the 4,000-pound safe to much of its original grandeur.

The restored metal safe is expected to be returned 7 a.m. Thursday to the Capitol, where it will reside in the treasurer's office.

"We treated it like an old painting," said Chuck James, who owns Rocky Mountain Painting. "It took some serious skill."

The old, dilapidated safe was being used to store construction equipment in the Capitol basement when it was discovered.

David Hart, head of the Capitol Preservation Board, commissioned James, along with Ron Wheat, owner of Ron Wheat Painting, to restore the antique.

"It was beat to heck," James said. "Dirty, chipped and all but destroyed."

The safe, he said, turned out to be one of the first ever produced by the Mosler Safe Co., of Cincinnati, around the year 1880.

"Not only was it old and historic, it was decorated in a high Victorian motif with stenciling, gold leafing, three small murals, floral designs and much more," he said.

"Unfortunately, it had been painted over, layers of old lead paint, so we were all very surprised when we started the process of removing the paint."

The two independent contractors from Holladay are not new to restoration work. They knew each other as competitors in the late 1970s before starting to do larger projects together. They've done restoration work on some LDS temples worldwide.

"We've been friends for a long time," James said.

The project began like a big puzzle, with the two painters not knowing what to expect. Working on the two-ton safe was not unlike working on a car. Restoration required lots of research and at least 250 hours of labor over three months.

James and Wheat believe the safe was one of the first heavy objects transported to Utah, probably not too many years after the continental railroad was up and running in 1869.

The safe was first housed in the City-County Building, prior to Utah statehood. Its original lettering showed "State Board Land Co." as the owner. Other lettering indicated the State Commission and Utah Highway Patrol were later users of the safe. It was probably first painted over in 1920, then repainted in later decades.

The two artists tried to use the same materials and paint originally used to decorate it and believe they re-created most of the design. The finished product resembles a piece of art more than a safe.

How valuable is it?

"It's a novelty," James said. "It would be very valuable. ... It's like an old Rolls-Royce. However, like many antiques, if it went for sale, it would depend on how much someone would pay for it."

The combination dial and locks on the safe still work. It probably remained in the Capitol from its opening in 1916 because no one wanted to move the heavy safe again.

The Capitol Preservation Board will pick up the safe from Holladay and return it to the Capitol.

"It came out nice, better than we hoped," James said.

"It was quite a project, but we had a lot of fun doing it," Wheat added.

Wheat and James also restored six wall safes in the Capitol as part of the building's restoration project.

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