By Jenna Colozza, Library Assistant
There is much to admire in Ellis Hall, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Reading Room, but one of its most eye-catching features is the ornate fireplace on the southern wall. I have spent many days in Ellis for nearly the last year and a half, yet only recently did I notice the strange reptilian motif in the interior of the fireplace.
I immediately set out to answer some burning questions about this mysterious reptile. A closer look at the reptile reveals flames coming out of its mouth and surrounding it, suggesting it must be a dragon. Certainly apt for a fireplace decoration! But what else can we discover about the dragon’s design and origin?
The MHS moved into its current home at 1154 Boylston Street in 1899. The structure was built specifically for the MHS, designed by prominent New England architect Edmund M. Wheelwright. Wheelwright’s design for the new building was somewhat contentious. At first, many Members found the plans at odds with the Society’s needs, not to mention cost-prohibitive. One influential figure in the Society even called the plans for the new building “snobbish.” Nonetheless, after sharing their feedback, they were able to come to an agreement with Wheelwright on the designs, and 1154 Boylston was completed in 1899.
During the construction of the Boylston Street property, the Society was forced to hold meetings in temporary quarters, which MHS President Charles Francis Adams bemoaned as a “dreary, sunless tomb.” The members must have been relieved to move their meetings to Ellis Hall, with its beautiful decoration and plentiful natural light.
Ellis, originally used for meetings of the Society, is enclosed in panels of stained American oak. The mantle and overmantle of the fireplace are of the same wood, ornately carved with botanical and animal designs, the overmantle featuring a carving of the Society’s beehive seal. Rams’ heads are carved into each leg of the mantle, and matching brass andirons also decorated with rams’ heads sit within the fireplace. Like many others in the nineteenth century, the decorative fireback featuring our dragon friend appears to be cast iron.
So who is responsible for the design of the fireplace? Invoices in the MHS Archives show that in January 1899, the Society contracted a company called the Murdock Parlor Grate Co. to lay the terrazzo floor (currently covered by carpet) in what is now the Seminar Room, and also purchased a fireplace grate for use in Dowse Library from them. This company specialized in various aspects of fireplace construction, both practical and ornamental, so it was likely also contracted to install the fireplaces in the MHS building. In the same month, the Society paid John Evans & Co. for interior wood and stone carving, meaning he must have carved the ornate wooden mantle and overmantle.
Another fireplace on the first floor has a cast iron backing similar to the one in Ellis, but its decoration is a custom design with the initials “MHS” surrounded by laurels. Since this design was custom-made for the Society, it is possible the dragon motif was a standard design used by Murdock Co.
I began to wonder how recently the fireplaces may have been used. Today, we wouldn’t dream of lighting a fire in the Reading Room or anywhere else in the building, no matter how cozy we imagine it would be on chilly days. Imagine the risk to our collections it would pose! Not to mention the question of fire safety and, well, the minor issue that the fireplaces in our building are no longer usable…
In fact, by the mid- to late-19th century, most large buildings were heated with furnaces or boilers, not stoves or fireplaces. The MHS building was heated with a coal furnace until the Second World War. The fireplace may have been used during meetings to promote a friendly, comfortable atmosphere, but it was certainly not the primary heat source in the building. We know that MHS leadership was quite concerned with the aesthetics and coziness of their permanent home. Nevertheless, the fireplace has likely served more of an ornamental purpose for most of its existence.
In the beginning, Ellis was a meeting space used by the MHS and by other organizations, such as the American Philosophical Society, to whom the MHS rented it out. It was then a museum space from 1924 until 1960, when it became the Society’s Reading Room. An arrangement of firewood and kindling can be seen in a 1960 photograph of the fireplace, but a suspiciously similar setup appears in a photograph over thirty years later, in 1991, suggesting those logs were never meant to be set aflame—perhaps were merely set dressing for the photographs.
Though none of the fireplaces are usable now, surprisingly, the chimney to the Ellis Hall fireplace was not capped until around the early- or mid-2000s. One day, MHS staff could hear chirping coming from the fireplace, and when they opened the flue, they discovered a nest of juvenile hawks in the chimney! Staff members who were there at the time remember a whimsical, though chaotic, scene of the birds flying around Ellis in the process of freeing them. Needless to say, after this incident, it was determined that the chimney needed to be blocked off at the top.
In a building that holds so much history, there is a lot to notice, so I forgive myself for not noticing the fireplace dragon sooner. It goes to show that even an obscure detail of interior design has a story to tell!
Highland, Margaret. “Cheerful and Bright (and Smoky): Staying Warm in 19th-Century American Homes.” Mansion Musings (blog). November 15, 2018. https://mansionmusings.wordpress.com/2018/11/15/cheerful-and-bright-and-smoky-staying-warm-in-19th-century-american-homes/
Massachusetts Historical Society archives, Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0356
Tucker, Louis Leonard. The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995.
With thanks to Anne Bentley and Peter Drummey for their assistance.
 Louis Leonard Tucker, The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1995, p. 218.
 Tucker, Bicentennial History, p. 223.