Joe Ryan has seen a lot of famous faces in his three decades as a bellman at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel — everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Gladys Knight, and Nelson Mandela to Paul Newman. But his most prized possessions from the hotel’s history are his vintage postcards. “I started getting serious about three years ago. I just go to eBay,” said Ryan, a Dorchester native. “I have a passion for this hotel.”
Ryan has amassed more than 50 historical postcards, a handful of which hang on the wall of the bell closet in the hotel’s lobby. They each show how the property and Copley Square have changed, such as before the John Hancock Tower dominated the skyline. He even has one from a pre-traffic-light era, when a police officer stood in a large box on the road’s median directing traffic through the square.
But Ryan’s collection isn’t just for himself — he produces copies of the postcards, handing them out to frequent hotel visitors, whether they’re repeat guests, convention services personnel, room-service employees, or a concierge.
Recently, a hotel guest mentioned that her father had proposed to her mother in the hotel’s original Merry-Go-Round bar, back when a massive carousel gently whirled guests in a circle as they imbibed. When she checked out, the woman was gifted with a piece of Ryan’s own collection: a vintage postcard of the Merry-Go-Round in its heyday.
“I said ‘hold on a sec!’ So I went and got one of my cards and I gave it to her, and it really made her day,” said Ryan. “They mentioned me on TripAdvisor.”
In addition to the postcards, Ryan has amassed photos and memorabilia that capture the hotel’s history, which dates to 1912. There’s the poster signed by survivors of the Titanic, who gathered at the hotel in 1992 for a meeting of the Titanic Historical Society on the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the nearly 883-foot ship.
Then there’s the photograph of John Lennon, wife Yoko Ono, and their infant son Sean standing with a nanny out front on Copley Square in the mid-1970s. (When the legendary musician was murdered in New York City in 1980, Copley Square filled with Bostonians honoring his memory.) Recently, when Ryan saw a hotel guest wearing a John Lennon T-shirt, he had her pose in the same spot as Lennon, and gave her a copy of the photo.
Ryan isn’t the only hotel employee with a passion for the property’s history. Over in the hotel’s OAK Long Bar + Kitchen, bartender Matt Garofalo has a small collection of hotel postcards of his own. He keeps them tucked in his red tool box, which houses his bartending implements.
“Anyone who points to the box, I always break these out,” said Garofalo, gesturing to his collection. One pictures a trolley, chugging down the street past the hotel in the 1920s. Another shows how things had changed by the 1940s, with automobiles filling the street in front of the property.
Unlike Ryan, Garofalo collects all his vintage hotel postcards in person. He scours antique stores and flea markets, and occasionally runs into someone who has a collection of their own.
“I started finding a couple Boston ones, and then I found one of the hotel, and I thought that’s really cool,” he said. “Now every time I look at postcards, I look for the hotel, or at least this area.”
Once in a while, the two collectors will unearth a piece of history. Last year, when a story in the Boston Globe Magazine mentioned that Amelia Earhart shot promotional photos on the roof of the hotel in 1928, Ryan scoured eBay in search of the shots.
“I was able to find this on eBay,” said Ryan, holding up an 8-by-10 glossy of Earhart standing on a roof in her aviator helmet and goggles, staring off into the distance.
“You can’t tell [it’s the hotel] but I’m probably 100 percent sure,” he said.