Meet a Back Bay Building: The Hotel Vendome

The original Hotel Vendome at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street was designed by architect William G. Peterson for wealthy insurance agent and real estate investor Charles Austin Wood and his wife, Caroline Elizabeth (Wilson) Wood. Built as a “family hotel” meant primarily to serve permanent residents rather than transient guests, it was completed in 1872. The Hotel Vendome featured an Italian marble facade, a dining room, billiard and reception rooms, an office, and a conservatory filled with birds and flowers. The striking interior was accented by white and colored marbles, and walnut finished halls and stairways. The overall effect was tasteful, with a harmonious color scheme and elegant design evident in all parts of the structure. Residents were offered all the conveniences of hotel life at the time, including speaking tubes, annunciators, and an elevator.

Lumber merchant and real estate investor Charles Whitney and his wife, Sarah Kimball (Bradley) Whitney purchased the Hotel Vendome in 1879 and expanded the original building with a 156 foot addition to the west on Commonwealth Avenue. The new structure was designed by Ober and Rand and was completed in 1882. Architect J. Foster Ober outfitted the addition with a Tuckahoe marble facade, central steam, two passenger elevators, elegant, grand parlors, an exquisitely finished rotunda, and even a special entrance for ladies on Dartmouth Street. There were five dining rooms, and a great dining hall with seats for 250 people decorated with fresco-work and a beautiful frieze, richly adorned with mirrors, carved mahogany, and cherry wood. After the expansion, the hotel served both transient guests and permanent residents. The first commercial installation of electric lights in the city was made here.

For decades, the Vendome was Boston’s premiere hotel. It hosted most of the notables who visited the city, including President Ulysses S. Grant and renowned French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. The Vendome stood as the finest evocation of the Second Empire in Boston, stylistically reminiscent of French Renaissance architecture, its facade incised with elaborate, Neo-Grec details. However, a series of small fires in the 1960s would serve as foreshadowing of the building’s future.

The last time the Vendome was certified as a hotel was December 31, 1969, at which time the required certificate, issued by the Division of Inspection from the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety was revoked because of recent fire damage and the lack of proper rehabilitation and maintenance of the structure. In 1971, the building was sold to real estate developer Pasqualle Franchi, who opened a restaurant called cafe Vendome on the first floor, and began renovating the remaining hotel into condominiums and a shopping mall.

On June 17, 1972, a worker discovered that a fire had begun in an enclosed space between the third and fourth floors. A total of 16 engine companies, five ladder companies, two aerial towers, and a heavy rescue company responded. The fire was brought largely under control by late afternoon, when all but five floors of a 40-by-45 foot section at the southeast corner of the building collapsed burying Ladder 15 truck and 17 firefighters beneath a two-story pile of debris. Eight firefighters were injured, nine lost their lives. It was the worst firefighter tragedy in Boston history. While the cause of the fire remains unknown, the collapse was attributed to the failure of an overloaded seven-inch steel column whose support had been weakened when a new duct had been cut beneath it, exacerbated by the extra weight of water used to fight the fire on the upper floors.

The Vendome was finally converted into 110 residential condominiums and 27 commercial units in 1975, but the original Tuckahoe and Italian white marble facade remains. On June 17, 1997, on the 25th anniversary of the fire, a monument honoring the lost firefighters was dedicated on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Only a few yards from the site of the fire, it features a firefighter’s helmet and coat cast in bronze, draped over a low arc of dark granite.

Sources: “Without Warning - A Report on the Vendome Hotel Fire” by the Boston Fire Historical Society, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), Back Bay House.