Coconut Grove nightclub, between Piedmont and Shawmut streets, 1938.
Piedmont street entrance.
Corner of Broadway and Shawmut street.
It was one of the biggest news stories of the 20th Century for the city of Boston. It was the fall of 1942, and the country was at war. November 28 was a Saturday, and soldiers and sailors preparing to go overseas were out on the town, along with a Thanksgiving holiday crowd. The Coconut Grove was a popular nightclub that meandered through multiple buildings on a narrow block between Piedmont and Shawmut streets near Park Square. The location had been a speakeasy at one time.
The story of the fire is well known. Regulations were lax at the time. A single revolving door was at the main entrance. The doors at other exits opened in. One exit had been boarded up to prevent customers from leaving without paying. Much of the 'Tropical' decor was made of flammable paper, and covered the walls. Afterwards, it was claimed that an effort to replace a lightbulb lead to the initial fire. The fire spread rapidly, from walls to faux palm tree fronds. The flames ran from room to room before they could be put out.
In the panic, exits became blocked, and bodies piled up. firefighters couldn't get in the building, blocked by the bodies. Some people were found sitting at tables, glasses in their hands. The faire had taken them so fast, they couldn't respond. Four hundred and ninety two people died in the blaze.
As a result of the Coconut Grove fire, many states drew up new fire regulations for public buildings like nightclubs. Flammable materials on walls were outlawed, and doors were required to open out.
Coconut Grove Plaque, Piedmont street. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. Photo by Tom Kelley (Creative Commons).