This is the sixth in a series of posts on largely unknown spaces in Boston that are open to the public.
The Salada Tea Doors are not exactly hidden—hundreds of people walk past them every day—but most pedestrians just walk on by. Even though a plaque on the building explains what they are and who made them, and the doors themselves are beautiful, folks are in too much of a hurry to stop and take a look. Granted, it is more difficult to see the doors when they are open during the workday but when they are closed after business hours, their marvelous sculptures are on full display.
It’s ironic that tourists from Boston flock to Florence, Italy, to see the cast-bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti of the Baptistry at the Duomo yet don’t know about their city’s own bas-relief gems. This is too bad because the Tea Doors are well worth a close inspection.
The Salada Tea Company
In 1917 the 10-story masonry building at 330 Stuart Street, designed by Densmore and LeClear, was the headquarters of the Salada Tea Company in the United States. Salada operated there for more than 40 years and the building also served as a cultural center that housed a significant collection of Asian art.
The doors were commissioned in 1926 by the Salada Company’s founder, Peter C. Larkin, and were designed to celebrate the cultivation of tea in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as well as the tea trade. Mr.Larkin invented the modern tea bag by putting loose tea into foil pouches for greater freshness and a consistent flavor. He named the company for a Ceylonese tea garden.
Two Distinct Parts
The 12-foot-high doorway has two distinct parts, each of which tell stories:
The Doors: These huge bronze doors, which weigh approximately two tons, hold ten panels in bas-relief, five on each side. They depict every step of the process of growing, harvesting, and shipping tea in Ceylon. The panels are flanked by two vertical rows of small figures in high relief. On the frames between the panels are designs of tea leaves and tea berries.
- Top: Men harvesting tea leaves
- Second: Men sorting tea leaves around a table
- Third: Men drying tea leaves in boxes
- Fourth: Men carrying boxes of tea on their heads
- Bottom: Elephants transporting boxes of tea
- Top, Second, Third, and Fourth: Male figures harvesting and processing tea leaves
- Bottom: Tea boxes loaded onto ships
The doors were designed by English sculptor Henry Wilson, who also created the bas-relief west doors of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. They were cast by the Gorham Company of Providence, RI.
The Doorframe: Above the marble frame from which the doors hang sits a figure of Demeter, the Greek goddess of grain and the harvest, who is supported by a child to right and left. Pilasters on the sides of the frame hold full-length, high-relief figures dressed in Asian costumes.
On the left is Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter and the Greek goddess of spring growth. On the right stands Triptolemus, a Greek man who was charged by Demeter with teaching the craft of agriculture to the world. Both figures are shown as female, however, which is a puzzle. Either the description on the plaque is incorrect or the sculptor exercised some creative license.
Elephant heads project from the capitals of the pilasters and above them march elephants in a frieze. These carvings are the work of M. Caesar Caira, who was a special assistant to Henry Wilson on the project.
View to an Exotic Land
The doorway was installed in 1927, a period of time when few people had traveled to or knew much about a far-away country such as Ceylon. It offered Boston’s residents both a view into an exotic land, fascinating animals, and information about how the tea in their pots came to be there. I’m sure some of the ladies also enjoyed the public and completely legal depictions of muscled men in loin cloths.
The doors were awarded a distinguished silver medal at the 1927 Paris Salon—a prestigious honor—but they have since fallen into obscurity and don’t receive the attention they deserve.
330 Stuart Street has been sold several times and it now houses the Grill 23 Restaurant and Bar. During the building’s latest renovation the doors were stored away and then re-hung. The tea doors are in wonderful condition, pristine and shining, and are a tribute to all involved in creating and preserving them.
Directions to the Tea Doors
The doors are best seen when they are closed, during the weekend and after business hours. Because the doors face north, they are in shadow some of the time, which diminishes the effect of the sculpted panels. Try to get there when the sun is bright.