Fairmont Copley Plaza was built on the original site of the Museum of Fine Arts, which was in Copley Square from 1876 until 1909 when the museum moved into its existing building on Huntington Avenue. Dozens of horse-drawn carts took the museum’s collection of thousands of pieces of art approximately one mile down the street to the new museum.
The old MFA building was razed in February of 1910 to make room for a new and modern luxury hotel – The Copley Plaza.
The “E” shaped building is a city block large and strongly supported by wooden pilings driven to the depth of 70 feet below street level.
Long regarded as a Boston institution, The Copley Plaza was formally opened on August 19, 1912, about 16 months after construction of the building began. Mayor of Boston John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, President Kennedy’s grandfather, presided over a reception for more than 1,000 guests, including local and national dignitaries, civic leaders, captains of industry, and stage and movie stars. So prestigious was The Copley Plaza’s opening that rooms had been booked 16 months in advance.
It took 16 months and $5.5 million to build The Copley Plaza. Laborers earned 35 cents an hour, working 7 days a week. Because the site was a former wetland, workers drove 8,000 pilings to a depth of 70 feet.
$3.50 is what guests paid for a room at The Copley Plaza in 1912.
The Fairmont Copley Plaza is also recognized as an innovator in the hotel industry. The hotel is known for these industry firsts: the first completely air-conditioned hotel in Boston, the first hotel with an international reservations system, the first hotel anywhere to accept credit cards, and the first to offer direct telephone dialing for guests.
The Merry-Go-Round Bar
During Prohibition, the Oak Bar was known as the Merry-Go-Round Bar, a lively gathering place. Patrons celebrated the end of Prohibition in 1933 at The Copley Plaza’s famous Merry-Go-Round Bar, which featured a working merry-go-round. It remained a popular gathering place through the 1970s. Pieces of the Merry-Go-Round Track have been preserved in the floor of OAK Long Bar + Kitchen.
The Oval Room was the scene of the popular tea dances as well as being “the” place to be for special events. While painting his murals at the Boston Public Library, John Singer Sargent, and his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, would be seen lunching in the Oval Room. There was a skating rink in the Oval Room under the dance floor where Rudy Valle sang in the 1930s, and skating was arranged as an entertainment for King Saud’s harem and children in the 1960s.
During World War II, the hotel’s elevator “boys” had to be over 65, so younger men were free for military service.
Regular guests have included Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The first visit they made to the Copley Plaza was in 1964, following their first wedding, and they made quite an entrance with a throng of 1,000 admirers greeting them in the hotel.
For more than 30 years, two gilded lions have guarded the St. James entrance to the hotel. Sculpted by Alexander Pope, the lions were originally carved for the entrance to the Kensington Hotel. When that hotel was demolished in 1967, the lions were “rescued” by The Copley Plaza.
View of Copley Square.