The inside of the 19th century bank is dark except for the glow of your flashlight.
Your footsteps echo as you sneak through the cavernous lobby, the 30-foot-high ceilings towering above you.
Your job: break into the vault, and escape the bank, before time runs out.
Steve Ulrich hopes to bring this scenario to life when he opens First National Escape, an escape room at the former Farmer’s National Bank building in Marietta.
Ulrich and community preservation officials hope the venture will not only provide a fun opportunity for visitors but also preserve the historic building and contribute to Marietta’s revitalization.
If fundraising and other planning go as expected, the room could open to the public within the next few weeks.
It will offer two scenarios to start: a standard lighted option and the flashlight-lit bank robber storyline. In both scenarios, guests will work their way from the bank’s lobby into the roughly 12-by-14-foot vault, challenging themselves to solve puzzles and “escape” the bank in the allotted time.
The games make use of the unique setting of the bank, which was built in 1875, Ulrich said. Players will work inside the actual bank vault – although its roughly one-ton door will remain open throughout the game – and solve puzzles tied to Marietta’s history.
Actual bank artifacts will also make an appearance, including safe deposit boxes in which guests might find some “kind of freakshow-ish” keepsakes.
For Ulrich, the bank is more than a setting for his business venture. It’s a piece of his childhood.
He grew up a few houses down from the bank at 100 W. Market St. In fact, he made his first deposit there at the age of 13 with money he earned mowing lawns around the borough.
Ulrich was looking for a space to move his two existing businesses – My Digital Conversion, a media transfer service, and Wilkum Studios, which does video production – when he found the opening at the old bank building.
The 141-year-old space has housed almost nothing but banks since it was built in 1895, said David White, president of Marietta Restoration Associates, the historic preservation nonprofit that owns the building.
It started as the home of Marietta National Bank, the first bank chartered in Lancaster County and the 12th in the United States.
“At one time, it was a demonstration of the wealth that existed in Marietta,” White said.
It continued as a financial institution until about 2000, when Farmers First Bank closed its branch there.
Since then, Marietta Restoration Associates has found occasional uses for the building, including a stint as a gift shop. The group, however, has always wanted to find a long-term steward for the historic space.
It found one in Ulrich.
“Steve was a local boy: grew up in Marietta, was running a business in Lancaster,” White said. “We just kind of hit it off and thought that we could jointly do something to help him and at the same time help our community.”
The restoration associates found Ulrich with help from Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities. The authority had also helped connect the restoration group with about $50,000 in grants to help maintain the bank and several other historic buildings in the borough.
Ulrich moved My Digital Conversion and Wilkum Studios to the bank from downtown Lancaster in early September. After seeing the success of other escape rooms in the area, he thought the concept would fit with the architecture of the historic bank building.
The escape room is already well underway, but he hopes to raise additional funds – $1,875, just like the building’s 1875 construction date – in a Kickstarter campaign that will launch before the opening.
Even after the room opens, Ulrich will have a long road ahead of him. The building, which the Marietta Restoration Associates still owns but hopes to eventually sell, needs upward of $200,000 in renovations. Ulrich has a 10-year plan that he hopes will help make that happen.
His ultimate goal is for the escape room to attract more visitors to Marietta, which he described as a borough always on the brink of an economic revitalization.
White is confident Ulrich will succeed – or at least take good care of the borough landmark in the process.
“I think he has a lot of enthusiasm to get it there,” he said.