Cocoanut Grove, Boston (4)

One more view of the Cocoanut Grove from Shawmut Street, following the November 28, 1942 fire. Image courtesy the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

The first photo here shows almost the same scene as the one in this post, but this one was taken earlier, before the debris was cleaned off the sidewalk and the windows boarded up.  Around a thousand people were in the nightclub at the time of the fire, and only about half survived.  The fast-moving flames, combined with the few unlocked exits, trapped hundreds of victims in the building. Here in the dining room, the fire was largely confined to the ceiling, but many died from carbon monoxide poisoning or from the superheated air.  The debris outside gives some indication of the pattern of the fire; while the flammable ceiling decorations quickly burned, other objects in the room such as chairs, artwork, and even music sheets survived relatively unscathed.

Today, the entire area has been redeveloped, and a street now crosses through where the dining room was once located.  As seen in the 2015 photo, it is named Cocoanut Grove Lane, in memory of the 492 people who died here over 70 years ago.

Cocoanut Grove, Boston (3)

Another view of the aftermath of the November 28, 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, seen from the Shawmut Street entrance. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Shawmut Street in 2015:

These two photos weren’t taken from the exact same spot, because the original one was taken from what is now a parking garage.  However, the two rowhouses just beyond the Cocoanut Grove serve as a point of reference; they are the same ones still standing in the 2015 view.  The Cocoanut Grove nightclub was located to the left of and behind these buildings, but they survived the fire as well as the late 20th century redevelopment of this neighborhood.  I couldn’t find an exact date for their construction, but they were probably built in the first half of the 19th century, when the Bay Village section of the city was first developed.

The 1942 photo doesn’t have an exact date, but it was probably taken before the one in this post, which shows the same scene from the opposite angle.  Notice how in this photo here the pile of chairs and other debris has not yet been cleaned up yet, and the windows have not been boarded up, suggesting that the photo was probably taken the morning after.  The section of the building photographed here was the main dining room, which also featured a dance floor and a stage for the orchestra.  Many of the 492 people who were killed in the fire died here, in part because the large plate glass windows, which could have offered an escape route for the panicked crowds, were concealed behind a layer of wood veneer on the inside.

Cocoanut Grove, Boston (2)

Another photo of the exterior of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, in the aftermath of the November 28, 1942 fire. This view shows the club from the Shawmut Street side of the block. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

As explained in the previous post, the Cocoanut Grove fire was the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history.  The fire completely engulfed the nightclub in just five minutes, and 492 people were killed here.  The previous post shows the original section of the club, which opened in 1927 on Piedmont Street. Over time, it expanded to include many different buildings in the block, including the building seen here, as well as the older brick buildings in the distance to the left.  Taken from Shawmut Street on the other side of the block from Piedmont Street, the 1942 photo shows the entrance to the main dining room and dance floor.  Signs above the windows also advertise for the Melody Lounge, a dimly-lit bar and lounge in the basement where the fire started.

In the years following the fire, the neighborhood was completely changed.  The building’s former footprint is now occupied by a parking garage and a condominium building that is under construction.  A short street, appropriately named Cocoanut Grove Lane, now crosses through the former location of the main dining room, connecting Shawmut and Piedmont Streets.  The only thing left from the 1942 scene is the building on the extreme right of both photos.  Despite being located right next to the club, this 19th century brick rowhouse survived the fire, and later survived the city’s urban renewal projects later in the 20th century.

Cocoanut Grove, Boston (1)

The Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Piedmont Street in Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood, shortly after the November 28, 1942 fire. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2021:

The first photo shows the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the aftermath of the infamous fire that gutted the building and killed 492 people, making it the second-deadliest single-building fire in American history.  The building had been constructed in 1916 as a garage, and was opened as the Cocoanut Grove in 1927.  The tropical-themed nightclub became one of the most popular in Boston; owner Barney Welansky was well-connected with both the Mafia and with Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, and the club’s guests included many prominent Bostonians, and it regularly featured well-known entertainers.  Just a week before the fire, Irving Berlin performed here, and one of the fatalities from the night of the fire was movie star Buck Jones.

Although the cause of the fire is still unclear, it began in the Melody Lounge, a dimly-lit basement room located just below this section of the building.  The fire was discovered at around 10:15, and spread rapidly with the help of the flammable tropical decorations that covered much of the interior.  Within five minutes, the entire 10,000 square foot building was on fire.  Many people attempted to escape through the revolving door at this entrance on Piedmont Street, but the size of the crowd jammed the door.  The door visible to the left was at the top of the stairs to the Melody Lounge, but it was locked, along with several other exits in the building.

The aftermath of the fire led to a number of changes in both medicine and fire safety; Boston area hospitals developed new treatments for burn victims, and state and city governments enacted new laws regarding emergency exits, exit signs, and flammable decorations.  As a result of the number of deaths caused by the jammed revolving door, such doors today must have conventional, outward-opening doors on either side.

In the years following the fire, much of this neighborhood was extensively redeveloped.  This site along Piedmont Street would be used as a parking lot for many years, but as seen in the 2021 photo, there is now a condominium building here.