Metro

Kevin Cullen

A memorial to Cocoanut Grove tragedy is long overdue

A woman sought news of her son at a mortuary on Nov. 30, 1942, after the Cocoanut Grove fire.
Globe file
A woman sought news of her son at a mortuary on Nov. 30, 1942, after the Cocoanut Grove fire.

Plans to build a large-scale memorial to the 492 people who perished in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire of 1942, the worst disaster in the city’s history, took a giant leap forward Monday.

Mayor Marty Walsh told me he supports the memorial, which will be built with private funds, and will do whatever he can to make it happen.

Walsh’s public support is a game-changer, and comes amid a bitter dispute over the fate of the small sidewalk plaque that commemorated the fire.

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Those who want the plaque returned to its original spot on Piedmont Street will not be happy to hear that City Hall officials say there is nothing they can do to rescind the decision of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association to move it.

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The plaque was created by the late Tony Marra, who as a 15-year busboy was the youngest survivor of the fire. It was embedded in the sidewalk on Piedmont Street in 1993, at the spot thought to be the original site of the revolving door where so many died in a frantic rush to escape.

But owners of eight new luxury condominiums that were built on Piedmont Street asked the neighborhood association to move the plaque, saying they wanted to “enjoy our homes in peace, without tragic memories, hanging wreaths at our doors and tourists peeking into our homes.”

The plaque was moved to the next block a couple of weeks ago, provoking outrage among the relatives of victims and survivors of the disaster, including Marra’s daughter, Dorothy Doucette.

Tom Calus, one of the condo developers, told me original Cocoanut Grove floor plans show the plaque is now closer, in its new location, to where the revolving door was.

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Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for the city, said the neighborhood association’s decision to move the plaque was not subject to approval by the city.

Walsh’s public support for a large-scale memorial, however, means that while those who advocate for greater recognition of the Cocoanut Grove disaster lost the plaque battle, they have won the war.

If Marty Walsh wants it built, it will get built. His public pledge to support such a memorial means the group that wants to build it can identify a site and begin to raise funds.

Walsh has long been sympathetic to the idea that not enough has been done to commemorate the Cocoanut Grove fire and remember its victims. Not long after he was elected in 2013, Walsh showed up at a ceremony renaming a sidestreet off Piedmont Cocoanut Grove Lane.

Dr. Ken Marshall, who leads a group that wants to build a Cocoanut Grove memorial, said Walsh’s public support changes the dynamic.

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“A lot of people have told us they would support this effort,” said Marshall, whose mother was a nurse who spent four straight days tending to victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire. “Now we can identify a site and begin to raise money.”

It is absolutely incomprehensible that, 74 years after the city suffered the worst disaster in its history, there is not a large, stand-alone memorial to an event that dramatically changed the way that buildings are constructed and how burn victims are treated. Laws were changed to encourage public safety. If hundreds died at the Cocoanut Grove, tens of thousands are alive today because of the advances that followed the disaster.

“We should commemorate those who died, who survived, and all the advances because of this,” Walsh said.

Marshall’s group has long coveted city-owned Statler Park, a quarter-acre of green space between the Park Plaza Hotel and Stuart Street, literally a stone’s throw from where the Cocoanut Grove stood.

“Statler Park is a natural,” the mayor said. “Everything’s on the table. This was a landmark event in our city’s history, and it needs to be commemorated appropriately.”

Dorothy Doucette says she won’t rest until her father’s plaque is back in its original spot.

But she likes the idea of resting some day in Statler Park, looking up at a proper memorial.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.