One of Solomon’s attorneys, Barnett Welansky, became owner of the Cocoanut Grove in February 1933. Records show that the club was incorporated October 23, 1933 by Angelo M. Lippi of Roxbury, Catherine F. Welch of Dorchester and Barnett Welansky of Boston. Prohibition ended in December 1933. In 1941 Welansky expanded the club and brought in Reuben Bodenhorn, a prominent Boston interior designer to redesign the interior to make the club more family oriented. It was Bodenhorn who brought in the tropical theme, with artificial palm trees, blue satin ceilings, dance floor, bandstand and rolling platform stage. Above was a retractable roof for warm star-lit nights. The Caricature Bar and the Melody Lounge were introduced at this time. The new decorations were required to be treated with fire-proofing, though in tests done after the fire, the effectiveness of this requirement would be scrutinized and harshly criticized. In 1942, work started on the new Broadway Lounge; it had only been open a week when the fire occurred.
The original building, at 17 Piedmont Street, was built in 1916 of reinforced concrete and over the years used as a garage and as a motion picture exchange. Over the years, as the occupancy of the building was changed to a night club, three adjoining buildings were purchased and incorporated into the enterprise. The result was a building of irregular shape with a number of separate rooms on several floors. It covered more than half a block.
The Grove was issued a restaurant license by the Boston Licensing Board in 1942, with a capacity of 100 tables, 400 chairs, and 30 fixed stools. It occupied approximately 10,250 square feet. The application on file in the Licensing Board office showed entrances and exits of the Grove at 17 Piedmont St, 59-65 Broadway, and second, third floors and basement of 6 and 8 Shawmut Street for stock. Licensed as a restaurant, it was not considered by Boston’s fire or building codes as a place of assembly. Fire sprinklers were not required in restaurants. The Grove had no fire sprinklers.
There were two main entrances into the club, one on Piedmont and one on Broadway. The Piedmont Street entrance was through a revolving door. The inside door of the Broadway entrance opened inward into a vestibule, while the double outside doors swung outward. Shortly before the fire the building had been inspected; the building and the exits found adequate, although this finding would later be harshly criticized.
Island-themed decorations installed in the Melody Lounge, the Caricature Bar, and the main dining room included blue satin cloth applied to the ceilings and walls, with air space between the cloth and the wooden furring underneath. This cloth and much of the furniture was considered inflammable. The trunks of artificial palm trees were wrapped with loose vegetable fiber, and the palm branches reached nearly to the ceiling. The trees were equipped with electric lights.
The floor plan of the building shows a rabbit’s warren of hallways, rooms within rooms, floors at different levels. There were five doors to the outside on the ground floor. There was a window that led out to the roof from the mens’ dressing room. There was no door to the outside from the basement, but there was a laundry chute that some survivors used to climb out.
From the Foyer, there was a revolving door to Piedmont Street which was the club’s main entrance. The foyer area included access to the cloakroom and restrooms. One direction from the foyer opened into the Caricature Bar and Main Dining Room, and the other direction led to a winding corridor that ultimately led to the stairs to the Melody Lounge. This narrow corridor also included another door that discharged directly to Piedmont Street, and although equipped with panic hardware, the door was locked shut and never used for escape.
The Caricature Bar adjoined the foyer and the main dining room. It was said to be the longest bar in Boston. True to its name, the room displayed drawings of the famous who had visited the club. There was both a main bar and a service bar. Tables and chairs formed a line on one side of the main bar. There were no outside exits from this area. One could leave the bar through the main foyer, the main dining room, and through a passageway leading to the Broadway Lounge. Four casement windows were behind the service bar, but were not used for egress. The windows were in normal operating condition.
The Main Dining Room was on the Shawmut Street side of the building and was the largest open area within the facility. Entrance to the room was from the foyer. The room was sectioned off between a dining area with tables and chairs around the edges of a dance floor, and the dance floor itself. The raised orchestra platform also had a rolling stage for floor shows that moved out in front of the orchestra. A raised-floor canopy-covered area, The Terrace, overlooked the dining room and was the area reserved for the rich and famous, and was surrounded by an iron railing. The Villa was an additional raised area to one side of the room. Above the stage and dance floor was a retractable roof that could be opened in the summer, for dancing under the stars. There were three obvious ways out of this area that were readily apparent to the patrons, and two additional ways out. The three obvious ways were the main entrance through the Foyer; the passageway at the end of the Caricature Bar that led to the Broadway Lounge; and swinging doors that discharged directly onto Shawmut Street, but were initially blocked with drapes and locked when the fire started. (It was ultimately unlocked by a waiter allowing some to escape.) The additional ways out included: a service stair for waiters went down to the basement kitchen, and a set of doors by the orchestra platform leading to a number of options including an electrical control room, a stairway to the basement, another door (initially locked) leading out to Shawmut Street and a stairway up to the second floor dressing rooms.
The dressing rooms were located in the portion of the building with an address at the nos. 4 and 6 Shawmut Street, and were not accessible to the patrons, although some of the dancers escaped in this manner. A door led from the main dining room near the orchestra platform and a door led to Shawmut Street at the foot of the stairway to the second and third floors. There was a large dressing room on each of the upper floors. Stairs led up to the dressing rooms and there was a window onto the roof.
The new Broadway Lounge was located in the 59 Broadway portion of the club, and had only been opened for eight days. The main door from the lounge to Broadway opened inward, and quickly became blocked at the time of the fire. The lounge contained a coat room, a mens’ room, ladies’ room, a bar, tables and chairs. There was door leading out to Broadway and a passageway in the rear of the room leading into the main dining room. Windows facing Broadway were fixed glass blocks.
The Melody Lounge was in the basement under the foyer on the Piedmont street side. The only illumination was from tiny bulbs surrounded by artificial coconuts. It included an oval bar in the center of the lounge. There was an octagonal-shaped bar with stools; tables and chairs occupied the rest of the room. There were two ways out of the room. One was a stairway up to the first floor to the Foyer through a winding corridor and past a (locked) door to Piedmont Street. The other door was used by staff and led to a passageway to the kitchen.
From the basement Kitchen, a stairway led up to the main dining room. Otherwise the only way out of the basement was through the Melody Lounge or through the basement windows or service chutes.