Historic Omni Parker House
Mention the name “Omni Parker House,” and a century and a half of rich and varied history comes to mind. Founded by Harvey D. Parker in 1855, the Omni Parker House is the oldest of Boston’s elegant inns and the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. It was here where the brightest lights of America’s Golden Age of Literature—writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Longfellow— regularly met for conversation and conviviality in the legendary nineteenth-century Saturday Club. It was here where baseball greats like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and David Ortiz wined, dined, and unwound. And it was here, too, where generations of local and national politicians—including Ulysses S. Grant, James Michael Curley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Colin Powell, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, William Jefferson Clinton, and Deval Patrick—assembled for private meetings, press conferences, and power breakfasts.
With its close proximity to Boston’s Theater District, the Omni Parker House also played an important role for performers, from nineteenth century actors like Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, and the latter’s handsome, matinee-idol brother, John Wilkes, to Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, James Dean, Stevie Nicks, Kelsey Grammer, Ann-Margret, Yo-Yo Ma, Rachael Ray, and Ben Affleck.
Equally impressive are the contributions made by venerable Parker House kitchens to American culinary culture. Talented bakers and cooks here invented the famed Parker House Roll, perfected Boston Cream Pie (now the official State Dessert of Massachusetts), coined the term “scrod,” and developed many of the dishes we now associate with Boston and New England cuisine. Parker’s has also been the training ground for internationally-known chefs and features a top-notch kitchen and wait-staff that once included Emeril Lagasse, Malcolm X, and Ho Chi Minh.
None of this, of course, has ever been a secret. The constantly clever Oliver Wendell Homes, Sr., for example—that self-avowed “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table”—waxed eloquent on the food and friends he encountered at this most favorite of haunts:
Such feasts! The laughs of many a jocund hour
That shook the mortar from King George’s tower;
Such guests! What famous names its record boasts,
Whose owners wander in the mob of ghosts!
Located along Boston’s beloved Freedom Trail, today’s Omni Parker House is more than a museum of American myth and memory. It’s a compelling, contemporary, full-service hotel that has meticulously maintained its nineteenth- century charms and sense of history. Lobbies, bar-lounges, and restaurant alike are couched in the dark hues of yesteryear; doors and elevators gleam of freshly burnished decorative bronze, while the walls are vintage American oak. Crystal chandeliers glow above, as guests sink into oversized chairs below, in little enclaves resembling private clubrooms.
In sum, the Omni Parker House is not only a vibrant living landmark, but also a twenty-first century destination of choice. Indeed, the Parker House is still rightly called the Grand Dame of Boston hotels.
The above is excerpted from our new book, Heaven, By Hotel Standards: The History of the Omni Parker House, by House Historian Susan Wilson.
Wild About Harvey
The concept of a “hotel” is a fairly recent one. Hence, in colonial Boston, travelers found rest and
refreshment not in hotels or motels, but at local taverns and inns. Since women were rarely on the road, colonial males
generally frequented these roadside taverns. They slept in rustic shared bedrooms—and often, shared beds — after
spending considerable time quaffing pints of colonial beer. Those taverns were centers for male bonding, conversation,
and—in periods of unrest or revolution—secret political meetings.
As these precursors to the modern hotel developed beyond simple taprooms, they began to be known as “houses”—a gentler
nomenclature for a far gentler environment. During the second quarter of the 19th century, more and more travelers
arrived in Boston by coach or ship. Lodging and dining houses proliferated throughout town, many bearing patriotic
names, like the American House, the Shawmut, the Adams, and the Revere House. Boston’s resident “houses” became so
genteel—and sometimes, so luxurious—that even ladies were ably accommodated.
In the midst of this period of expansion and change, a 20-year-old farm boy named Harvey D. Parker arrived in Boston
Harbor on a packet from Maine. The year was 1825, and his dilemma was real: with less than one dollar in his satchel,
young Parker was in immediate need of employment. His first job, as a caretaker for a horse and cow, brought him $8 per
month. Subsequent work as a coachman for a wealthy Watertown woman garnered somewhat more respectable earnings and set
him on a whole new career path.
Whenever Parker trotted the horse-drawn coach into Boston, the young man ate his noonday meal at a dark cellar cafe on
Court Square, owned by one John E. Hunt. By 1832, the ambitious young Parker bought Hunt’s cafe for $432 and renamed it
Parker’s Restaurant. A combination of excellent food and perfect service immediately began attracting a regular
clientele of businessmen lawyers, and newspapermen. By 1847, he took on a partner, John F. Mills. And by 1854, he was
ready to embark on a much grander enterprise.
Parker’s plan was to build a new, first-class hotel and restaurant at the School Street base of Beacon Hill, just down
the road from the domed Massachusetts State House. Despite the competition—another popular, modern hotel directly
across Tremont—Parker bought the former Mico Mansion on April 22, 1854, and razed the decrepit boarding house. In its
place, Parker built an ornate, five- story, Italianate-style stone and brick hotel, faced in gleaming white marble. The
first and second floors featured gracefully arched windows, while marble steps led from the sidewalk to the marble foyer
within. Once inside, thick carpets and fashionable horse-hair divans completed an air of sumptuous elegance. Above the
front door, an engraved sign read simply, “PARKER’S.”
For more information, view our brochure on the history of this Boston landmark.
Heaven, by Hotel Standards
Omni Parker House has so much history to share, that it can't all fit on one brochure or web page. Heaven, By Hotel Standards is a delightfully anecdotal and lavishly illustrated new book by author and photographer Susan Wilson that details the rich history of our Boston landmark.
Buy it now
"Omni Parker House Holds an Intriguing History” featured on Chronicle 5 WCVB