The Fairmont Copley Plaza Boston: A Conservative Exterior With a Heart Full of Secrets

To be a Bostonian is as identifiable as being a New Yorker for the very fact that they are a study in opposites. For every NYC native that loudly proclaims their individuality, there is a Bostonian who blends in with the crowd. For every Manhattanite who walks the sidewalks as if they were catwalks, there is a Brahmin whose prep is only surpassed by their modesty.

A native Bostonian eschews the very glitz and glamor a New Yorker parades and the difference between the two is a source of pride to a true New Englander. Yet, don’t be fooled by this conservative exterior.  There are secrets that lie within that conventional heart and New York-level intrigue just below the surface of that traditional woolen shell. If there were a Boston building that personified this very essence of a Bostonian, it would be the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. The tastefully-constrained opulence and conservative elegance of these walls that are now as much a part of America’s history as Boston’s don’t give the slightest hint of what truly lies beneath. Like any true Bostonian, there is more than meets the eye, if one is willing to scratch that beautifully contrived surface.

Boston at the Turn of the 20th Century

Few outsiders know that the great city of Boston was essentially swampland that was regularly flooded by Boston Harbor via the Charles River until the late 1800s. By that time, the city’s turn of the century engineers were able to create the entire downtown, known as the Back Bay, on landfill that produced acres of buildable land in the heart of the city. In 1910 a dam was constructed to keep the harbor tidal floods out of the Charles River and the center of Back Bay became known as “Copley Square” for the famous Boston portraitist-to-the-elite, John Singleton Copley. This area soon became the place where the merchants, businessmen, and bankers that were becoming the cornerstone of the booming post-Reconstruction US economy made their tastefully extravagant homes. Naturally, this population cultivated a love of the finer things in life and, between 1870 and 1900, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New England Public Library (the first in the nation) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts all established themselves here in Back Bay’s Copley Square. However, the Museum of Fine Arts soon amassed so many pieces that it was forced to vacate its prominent location in Copley and build a larger facility in a different locale. The subsequent vacancy in the epicenter of Boston society was not to remain empty for long.

No Vacancies

Before the museum even packed up its treasures government officials in charge of this city-owned land knew they wanted it replaced by an upscale hotel to draw travelers to this new heart of Boston. They succeeded in contracting New York-based architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to design the new hotel almost as soon as he finished designing his pies de resistance in 1907: The Plaza in New York City.  Hardenbergh, in true Boston fashion, was known for his thoughtful and thorough design work and his commitment to creating buildings that would stand the test of time. However, in employing the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, Hardenbergh threw restraint to the wind when designing the inside of the hotel.  While the outside walls were constructed with heavy limestone, symmetrically placed windows and a flat roof in keeping with this style, the interior, like the very Bostonians who lived amongst it, was a direct juxtaposition to this conservative exterior. Vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, and marble columns dominated the lobby, ballrooms, and other public spaces in the hotel. Rumors of its opulence spread through the city, as well as talk of its $5.5 million dollar price tag. Sixteen months before it was even completed, the hotel had booked every available room. Though none of them were even close to being finished, there was not a vacancy to be had.

A Grand Opening Fit For Royalty

On August 8, 1912, the first guests checked in to what was now named the Copley Plaza Hotel. Two weeks later, a grand opening was held on August 19th and presided over by Boston mayor (and JFK’s grandfather) John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald in the hotel’s grand ballroom, the largest in the city.  From this night on, the Copley Plaza was spoken of in tones hushed by its grandeur. Every ceiling on the first floor was coffered and gilded, while the columns and tile work in the lobby were of Italian marble and laid by hand.  Waterford crystal chandeliers, too numerous to count, shed light that bounced off of what seemed to be miles of mirrored walls while the finest Oriental rugs and velvet brocade curtains adorned the floors and accented the windows. Every brass doorknob in the hotel was embossed with two back-to-back “P’s” symbolizing the sisterhood of the Copley Plaza and The Plaza in New York City. Boston’s upper class had just begun to establish itself and it now had found its clubhouse.

Secrets and Scandal at the Copley Plaza Hotel in the Roaring 20’s

For the next decade, the Copley Plaza Hotel was the place to see and be seen in Boston.  Though to flaunt one’s appearance was contrary to the makeup of the typical Bostonian, the elegantly mirrored entrance hall became known as “Peacock Alley,” for how the beautiful people would stroll through it in gowns as fine and showy as a peacock’s feathers. The mirrored hallways had their own little secret, as a rumor persisted that one slightly off center mirror was really a hidden bar during Prohibition. The hotel was not just for secret drinking and parading one’s vanity, however.  US President Howard Taft was a guest during the hotel’s early years and the famed American artist John Singer Sargent was a long-term guest from 1919 to 1925 while he was working on his famous murals at the Boston Public Library across the street. Legend has it that he especially enjoyed watching the muralists who were working on the hotel’s newest ballroom, as they were painting a blue sky and cloud landscape on the beautiful oval ceiling of what became known as the Oval Room. Sargent reportedly loved the ceiling so much that he asked to add his own touch to it and astonished the muralists by painting an angel in the ceiling’s clouds.  Though the angel was painted over when the hotel underwent renovations in the 1940’s, it is said to still be watching over the Oval Room in secret. Unfortunately, there was no one watching over Senator John Kerry’s paternal grandfather, Frederick Kerry, when he chose to commit suicide over financial woes in a lobby restroom at the Copley Plaza Hotel in 1921. This event received moderate press in the local newspapers at the time but was a much smaller story than it could have been thanks to the Plaza’s endeavors to keep this scandal quiet.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1934, the Copley Plaza Hotel was ready to celebrate. In an innovative move, it remodeled its formal and ornate Copley Café to create the modern Merry-Go-Round Bar. The bar was indeed a merry-go-round of tables and chairs around a central bar that took one hour to complete a rotation. Massachusetts governor Joseph B. Ely and State Senator David Walsh were the first to christen the bar with martinis upon its opening in 1935. Babe Ruth was also a guest at the Plaza, and most likely the Merry-Go-Round Bar, later that year when he and the city celebrated his return to the Boston Braves after a famed sixteen-year absence with the New York Yankees.

New Ownership, More Scandal

In 1944, the city sold the Copley Plaza Hotel to the Sheraton Hotels Company and, after completing almost five years of renovating, they changed the name from the Copley Plaza to the Sheraton-Plaza Hotel. The 1950s continued to see the same parade of international leaders and celebrities from Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Luciano Pavarotti to Lena Horne and Dorothy Lewis. In 1964 the scene at the Sheraton-Plaza turned ugly when the newly married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton arrived for a three-day stay while Mr. Burton stared in Hamlet. Both actors had finalized their divorces from others just days before marrying each other and they arrived in the lobby as newlyweds to find protesters mobbing them and holding picket signs emblazoned with the word “Shame!” To flaunt a new marriage in the wake of divorce was not something to be tolerated in the Catholic bastion of Boston and both actors were incredulous. They did not return to the city again for another twenty years.

In 1977, Sheraton Hotels sold the hotel to the Boston-based John Hancock Insurance Company and it regained its original name of the Copley Plaza. Though the Merry-Go-Round bar closed in 1978, it was replaced by the Plaza Bar and Dining Room and, later on, the Oak Room, and the Plaza enjoyed a resurgence in its popularity as local celebrity chefs such as Lydia Shire, Jasper White, and Gordon Hammersley turned its restaurant into one of the best in the city. However, on a cold spring night in 1979, the hotel was almost brought to its knees when a disgruntled former busboy, having recently been fired from the Plaza as well as the Boston Sheraton Hotel, enacted his revenge by starting multiple fires at both hotels. The Copley Plaza Hotel underwent a massive evacuation in the middle of the night, with the fire department rescuing at least 50 people from their windows with another 2,000 guests running into the streets in their pajamas. In the most dramatic rescue of all, soon-to-be media mogul Sumner Redstone was rescued as he was hanging from his third-story window with severe burns. His will to live following his painful recovery further translated into his success in business, as he went on to champion Viacom, CBS, MTV Networks, and Paramount Pictures through the 1980s.

The Copley Plaza Hotel Turns 100 in a New Century

As the hotel’s first century came to a close it underwent several other renovations, becoming the first hotel in the country to have an international reservations system and the first hotel to accept credit cards. It continued to house celebrities and politicians alike from Prince Charles’ first visit to Boston in 1986 to every US President since Howard Taft.  In 1989 it became a founding member of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Meanwhile, though Boston may have a crusty reputation for eschewing the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, it has slowly become a favorite filming location due to its similar appearance to New York City but considerably less expensive filming costs. As a result, The Copley Plaza Hotel was the host of an early scene in the Tom Cruise movie The Firm in 1993 as well as the final wedding scene with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway in 2009’s Bride Wars and Amy Adams and Christian Bale’s celebration of their ultimate caper in American Hustle in 2013.  The elegant opulence of the Plaza’s ballrooms and the lobby has also made it one of the most popular wedding venues in Boston, with the hotel reportedly hosting more weddings than the historic Trinity Church right next door. The Copley Plaza underwent several ownership changes during the last decades of the 20th Century, with the Fairmont Corporation purchasing it in 1996 and renaming it the Fairmont Copley Plaza. Though Fairmont no longer owns the hotel, the name remains in place under the ownership of the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation as part of a $12 billion dollar property portfolio that includes Boston’s Faneuil Hall, New York’s Plaza Hotel, and Barneys.

In 2012, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel celebrated it’s Centennial to the utmost by completing a $20 million dollar renovation that included a makeover of all 383 guest rooms, a new rooftop health club, state-of-the-art conference rooms, and the new Oak Bar & Kitchen, featuring farm-to-table American cuisine. Eight new suites were created, all with themes surrounding Boston points of interest and institutions.  Signed lithographs by Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso now grace the lobby, paying homage to the museum that originally graced this heart of the city. As a crowning Centennial celebration, the hotel honored its most unique feature of all with a new dog bed at the hotel’s entrance: from 2007-2015 Catie the black lab was the hotel’s “canine ambassador,” greeting guests with her owner, the hotel concierge. Her younger sister Carly has since taken her place.

However, in perhaps the most telling example of the Fairmony Copley Plaza’s place in the literal and figurative heart of Boston, was in April of 2013 following the Boston Marathon Bombings.  The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel has long been the hotel of choice for the most elite runners and is also the headquarters for the Boston Marathon Association and the media given its proximity to the race’s finish line. In the horrific hours following the bombing, it opened its ballroom doors to serve as a triage center, while the St. James Room bar transformed into a communications center to enable people to get in touch with loved ones.

Throughout one-hundred-year-old-old history in this city, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel has indeed become the epitome of a Bostonian, possessing a traditional and conservative exterior over a heart that is rich with the gold of opulence, secrets, scandal, and love.

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