By Samantha Mellman
This summer, residents of the Vendome proudly unveiled their exhibit of gilded age antiquities from the Hotel Vendome.
Inside the lobby of the now condo building sits a rectangular glass cabinet that holds a historical bookmarker for the Hotel Vendome’s past. There are over a dozen items arranged together such as china table settings, silver plated tea sets and cutlery. The list continues with gift shop mauchline boxes, postcards, and a registry signed by hotel guests.
These items were not simply fetched out of a Vendome storage locker. The collection precipitated from a series of fortunate events that led to the permanent installation. When Darwin Cordoba, resident and overseer of the Americas Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, met a former Vendome occupant looking to sell off his small collection, he immediately broke word to the building’s committee.
Stepping-in soon after, residents Kibby Spiers-Pilla, director of The Vendome Artifacts Collection, and her husband George Pilla, extended an offer on entire lot before the pieces were broken up. With assistance from additional residents funds were raised to purchase the collection and the display cabinet.
“This was the most beautiful hotel in the Back Bay and a lot of people forgot about that,” said Cordoba standing next to the display. “It is fantastic to see what is behind the history of the Vendome.”
Architect William G. Preston, modeled the hotel on the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth Street, after the Place Vendôme, a former French palace that was completed in 1871. In the following decades the hotel would be expanded and become the first commercial building with electric lighting in Boston. The Vendome emerged as the place for elite guests from American Artist John Singer Sargent to President Grover Cleveland.
Many decades later the Vendome began to be converted into condominiums, retail spaces, and restaurants. Only a year after the hotel’s centennial the worst firefighting fatality to hit Boston would mark the Vendome name in infamy.
“There’s not a Boston firefighter who doesn’t know about the Hotel Vendome,” said Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn.
Also the son of a former Dorchester fireman, in 1972 Finn was 11 years old when the Hotel Vendome suffered a massive fire that killed nine firefighters when the southeastern portion of the building collapsed.
“We feel eternally tied to the Hotel Vendome from the Boston Fire Department and the City of Boston,” said Finn at the exhibit’s unveiling recently.
The Italian white marble exterior of the Vendome is the only part of building that resembles the once grand hotel. Once a lobby layered in marble and walnut wood moldings, now bares white washed walls dotted with abstract art under drop ceilings. The fantasy that was the old Vendome is wiped away except for a massive lobby mirror in a wooden carved frame.
“All of our sense that this is a historic building inside was pretty much lost,” said Kibby. “We tried to live some of it through the articles, menus, and seeing the plates they ate off of and bring it back in that way.”
More than a hundred artifacts will be rotated every quarter, so that residents can always enjoy seeing and learning something new about the Hotel Vendome.