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Opening My Father’s Mosler Safe As Metaphor For Developing Kilbourn Place

by Gus Widmayer
I would like to update your readers on the multiple delays at Kilbourn Place. The project is making slow and steady progress, and now entering its final phase with construction slated to begin in early autumn, looking quite a bit different than what I had first envisioned. Renovating the largest retail space in downtown Groton does not come without challenges. There have been many obstacles to overcome.
     I first approached the project at Kilbourn Place from a creative perspective. I was very interested in restoring to Main Street a vision of Dr. Kilbourn’s old Groton Hospital including a grand clock as emblem of the passage of time. In so many ways, however, this put the proverbial cart before the horse. What I have learned over these last 18 months is that there is an unbreakable order to how the process is done if it is to be done right.
     There is an old Mosler bank safe in my garage that my father owned when he was alive. In it, he kept his silver coin collection, which has since been disbursed. The safe is quite large, weighing 1100 pounds, measuring five feet tall and four feet wide. It has double doors that are each 10 inches thick. In this safe I now keep important papers and books, a scarab bracelet that was a favorite of my mother, and a large ivory tusk chess set that my father brought home with him from one of his many buying trips to the Far East, (worthless under today’s ban on the resale of ivory).
     The intriguing piece to the entire ensemble is the safe’s six-tumbler combination lock set. To open this safe, one must turn six times to the right, reach a number, followed by five turns to the left to arrive at another number, and repeat this pattern four more times. I have never successfully opened this safe on my first try. If my young daughter is distracting me with some song and dance, it can take me half a dozen attempts.
     Because I love to write historical travel guides and genealogical research books, I am sometimes asked by young writers how and where to find the creative inspiration to put their ideas down on paper. Invariably, I tell them it really is more of a mechanical thing at first. There is a form to be followed or the enterprise will collapse. There are necessary plot devices, character development, and so forth. When I was at university, my rector once told me that “form follows function.” If students walk across a lawn of green grass, making a pathway in the dirt, that is where to pour your new sidewalk. That advice has never worked for me. I would think to myself, “Why not pour the concrete first and show students the best way to walk across campus?” In my life, “function has followed form.” In other words, buy the canvas first, and then start painting.
     We live in a very structured universe. The order by which things work is unbreakable. Our 30th President of the United States, John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. once stated, “Unless men live right, they die. Things are so ordered in this world that those who violate its laws cannot escape the penalty. Nature is inexorable. If men do not follow the truth they cannot live.” You cannot open a Mosler safe without the proper sequence of turns to the right and left, stopping at the correct places every time, and repeating the sequence. You cannot renovate a large retail space without using a tried-and-true formula.
     My career is in import. I bring semiconductors and their various packaging components in from the Far East, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries, to sell them in the United States. The world of real estate development is more foreign to me than the tariff calculations on an ocean cargo shipment from Kuala Lumpur.
     Here are the steps you must follow to put up a new building. Start with a basket of cash. You will be presented with dozens of small, unforeseen expenses and you will need to hire an architect with your own money, (make six turns to the right). Put your ideas to paper and arrive at a number. Take that figure to the bank and negotiate a loan package, (make five turns to the left).
     Present your proposal to the many Town Boards with multiple revisions, (four turns to the right). Remember! The clock is ticking, and your basket of cash is being depleted on a daily basis. Then from many dozens of builders in a vibrant market find a contractor who has time for your project and matches your style and vision, (three turns to the left). Hope for a good appraisal. Negotiate with prospective tenants. Put to bed concerns with contamination in the soil and water table. Navigate a 10,000-point drop in the stock market. Dodge a random killer virus. Arrive at a number. Tie everything together and coordinate a final draft for sign-off by all the participants in order for the program to begin, (two turns to the right). You will need to modify the design and adjust some cost estimates in the final stretch but if you have done your job right, it is one turn to the left and the safe doors will open. The project begins.
     It is not a sure thing. A misstep by any of the participants or taking these steps in the wrong order and you will have to start again, now with a new architect, then with another bank, and ever with a small army of sub-contractors, (repeat six turns to the right). If it is any indication, there is one thing I can report with certainty: I have never opened my father’s safe correctly on the first try.
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