Founded by Henry D. Parker in 1855, the Omni Parker House (then known as simply The Parker House) has been a Boston resident for over 150 years, located at the junction of Tremont and School Streets, and one of the oldest of Boston's elegant inns. and the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. It was here that the brightest lights of America's Golden Age of Literature—writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Longfellow, regularly met for conversation in the legendary nineteenth century Saturday Club.
Literary Trail of Greater Boston Literary Trail of Greater Boston

Boston is one of the most historic cities in the United States. It also boasts an impressive history of literary greatness.

Baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams wined, dined, and unwound at the Parker House. And it was here too, where generations of local and national politicians, including Ulysses S. Grant, James Michael Curley (Boston's Mayor of the poor), Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and William Jefferson Clinton, assembled for private meetings, press conferences, and power breakfasts.

The Omni Parker House is close to Boston's Theater District, and it has played an important role for thespians. Many of the finest actors from the nineteenth century made the hotel their home away from home, including Charlotte Cushman, Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, brother of the matinee-idol, John Wilkes Booth, who was seen pistol practicing nearby only eight days before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; wouldn't you know it would be an actor jumping onto a stage in his last great performance at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. During the twentieth century, stage, screen, and television stars, from Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and William ("Hopalong Cassidy") Boyd, to Adam "Batman" West, Kelsey Grammer (Cheers was started in Boston as a local pub.), David Shiner and the cast of "Seussical, the Musical", made the hotel their home.

The kitchens of the Parker House made Americana culinary culture a mainstay, with talented bakers who invented the famed Parker House roll. Parker's has also been the training ground for internationally known chefs.

The Omni Parker House's
restored lobby with original
heirlooms, giving it a
museum ambiance.

The Omni Parker House is located on today's Boston Freedom Trail, and it is a museum of its own in a way. Even though it has twenty-first century amenities, it still retains its nineteenth century charm and history. The lobby, bar-lounges, and restaurant are still armored with the dark wood hues, the elevators are freshly burnished bronze, while the walls are vintage American oak. When walking to my room I had to stop and view the numerous paintings on the hallways, a living museum, indeed. Crystal chandeliers glow in the lobby as a bus group was checking out. The lobby is a vibrant living landmark, more like a private clubroom, with many more exquisite paintings surrounding the museum goers—I mean guests.

The corner of Tremont and School is as old as Boston itself. In 1630, Englishman John Winthrop and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony first settled in the area, naming the peninsula Trimount, after the three hills—Beacon, Premberton, and Mount Vernon—dominating the landscape. The name was changed to Boston to honor the Lincolnshire town that many of the pilgrims had departed,. After the three mountains were leveled Tremont Street was laid out at the base of the hills and Boston Common. The location and name of School Street originated in Puritan times, as well. From 1635-1636, the British colonists established a college in nearby Cambridge (Harvard). By 1645 the prep school, America's first public school, was housed in a cabin on what would be know as School Street. The school was later known as Boston Latin, and it educated a host of Boston's elite, including Sam Adams, John Hancock, Charles Bullfinch, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ben Franklin was a dropout. Parker's Bar now sits where the old cabin was located.

Lieutenant Colonel George Washington was known to frequent the many taverns that sprung up on School Street; two colonial-era buildings still stand—King's Chapel, a rough-hewn granite church completed in 1754, and the Old Corner Bookstore building, constructed in 1718 as an apothecary.

With remodeled 551 rooms
and 21 suites, The
Omni Parker House
enters its third century.

The concept of a "hotel" is a fairly recent one. In colonial Boston, travelers found rest and refreshment not in hotels or motels, but at local taverns and inns. Women were rarely on the road, so colonial males usually frequented the roadside taverns. They often even shared beds after quaffing pints of colonial beer. I guess after too many pints they began the foment for freedom and the rise of a radical cause—Independence.

The earlier hotels were known as "houses." As more travelers arrived in Boston by coach or ship, lodging and dining houses bore patriotic names like American House, The Shawmut, the Adams, and The Revere House. The resident houses were genteel and sometimes luxurious, and some began to even accommodated ladies!

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 with less than one dollar in his satchel, he was in immediate need of employment. His first job was as a caretaker for a horse and cow, which gave him eight dollars a month. Then as a coachman for a wealthy Watertown woman, he was set up on his career path.

Whenever Parker trotted the horse-drawn coach into Boston, his noon meal was at a dark, cellar café on Court Square, owned by John E. Hunt. By 1832, the ambitious Parker bough Hunt's café for $432, and renamed it Parker's Restaurant. A combination of excellent food and service won over a regular clientele of businessmen, lawyers, and newspapermen. By 1854 he embarked on a grander enterprise.

His 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. Parker purchased the former Mico Mansion and razed the decrepit boarding house. In its place, Parker built an ornate, five story, Italianate-style stone and brick hotel, faced with gleaming white marble. The first and second floors featured arched windows, while marble steps led from the sidewalk to the marble foyer within. Once inside, thick carpets and fashionable horsehair divans completed an air of elegance. Above the front door, an engraved sign read simply, "Parker's." Even visiting British author Charles Dickens marveled at the splendor of Boston's finest new hotel.

The Charles Dickens Room. site of the
first American reading of "A Christmas Carol,"
before the Saturday Club.

The elegant new hotel on School Street was opened on a Saturday for public inspection, thus evolved the Saturday Club; The Parker House was on its was as a preeminant locale for the literati.

Harvey Parker's earlier experience with Parker's Restaurant had taught him that catering to the local crowd—providing Bostonians with a fine and flexible dining experience—was equally important to lodging. In those days a Boston cook could be hired for eight dollars per week; Parker hired the gourmet French chef Sanzian for an astonishing yearly salary of $5000. Sanzian's versatile menu drew large crowds and accolades. A typical Parker banquet of the 1850s or '60s included: green turtle soup, ham in champagne sauce, aspic of oysters, filet of beef with mushrooms, mongrel goose, black-breast plover, charlotte ruse, mince pie, and a variety of fruits, nuts, and ice creams. Among Sanzian's specialties were: tomato soup, venison-chop sauce, and delicate mayonnaise, plus a distinctive method of roasting beef and fowl using a revolving spit oven over well stoked coals.

Boston Cream Pie (now the official dessert of the State of Massachusetts) and lemon meringue pie, were perfected at the Parker House kitchens. The moist, fluffy, and internationally known Parker House roll was an inspired creation of the in-house German baker who worked under Chef John Bonello. In 1876 famed French composer Jacques Offenbach stayed at the Parker House on his first U.S. tour, and he was served the crustless roll, to his delight, and he hummed a tune, "Parker rolls, Parker rolls, how I love you." Later that tune was expanded to the grand opera masterpiece, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann."

Parker House Rolls


½ cup scalded milk
½ cup boiling water
1 tsp. Salt; 1 tsp. Sugar; 1 tsp. Butter
½ yeast cake dissolved in ¼ cup lukewarm water
3 cups bread flour, enough to knead.

Method: Place milk, water, salt, butter, and sugar into mixing bowl and mix well. Add yeast. Then add flour till it is enough to knead. Cover and let it rise to double its bulk, shape into balls, put into buttered pan and cover. Let it rise in a warm place again to double its bulk. With the floured handle of a wooden spoon press the balls through the center, almost cutting it in half. Brush one half with butter, fold the other half over and press together. Let it rise again and bake in a hot oven 400 degrees F for 15 minutes. Brush the tops with butter after baking. Yield: 2-dozen rolls.

Thus evolved mail order rolls, shipped all over the U.S. They are still served to Omni Parker House patrons in the original Parker Restaurant, just off the lobby, and I had a chance to partake of them at the morning buffet breakfast. I could have been sitting where Ulysses S. Grant expounded his Civil War bravado, or maybe where Emerson sat, or Longfellow, or even Dickens—thus giving the morning a certain literary caché—and I felt a kinship to the late literati after meeting one of Jetsetters Magazine newest Boston writers and his wife for breakfast. I am certain numerous and lengthy discourses from the famed authors often revolved around the excellent cuisine at Parker's Restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner.

The Parker's Restaurrant & Bar offers
dining and entertainment,
with American & Continental cuisine
from Head Chef Michael Oliver.

Legend has it that the term scrod originated at Parker's Restaurant. Scrod is not a type of fish, but they are any white-fleshed fish that are the youngest, freshest, smallest, or best of the day's catch. It can be cod, haddock, or halibut. Scrod is still served at Parker's to this day.

Don't discount the spirits served in the Omni Parker House bar—they also have a history of their own, with such catching names as Sherry Cobbler, Timber Doodle, Mint Julep, Gin Fling, Sangaree, and the "Cocktail." You can still find draughts of rum, whiskey, and gin here. Harvard students readily found their way across the Charles River for a medicinal tot, and I bet they still congregate here on certain occasions.

Another culinary innovation was witnessed at the Parker House: "The European Plan," separating the charges for food and lodging. Before Parker came along, most inns and hotels had a single fee, with rigid dining schedules and uninspired meals.

In the twentieth century Parker House's rising (pun intended) restaurant chefs included some of the best in their field, including Emeril Lagasse, Vietnamese revolutionar, Ho Chi Minh served as a baker at the Parker House from 1911 to 1913; Malcolm Little, the black activist known as Malcolm X, was a busboy In the early 1940s Mezzo Soprano Denyce Graves was a night-shift telephone operator before gaining fame.

The Last Hurrah Bar is named after the 1957
movie of the same name, a biographical
tribute to Boston's famous mayor to the poor.

The Parker House's ideal downtown location made it the place for a guaranteed clientele. The Tremont Theater nearby hosted literary, musical, and political events. Horticultural Hall, home to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, was built in 1844, next door, prior to Parker House becoming a neighbor. King's Chapel, Boston's first Anglican Church and then Unitarian church, is still popular for worshippers, also nearby. Parker's continued to boom with the opening of the French Empire-style City Hall across the street in 1865. Ever since, theater stars and politicos have been mixing it up at The Parker House

All this literati was the petrie dish for the gathering culture at The Parker House that evolved into the Saturday Club in 1867. The Athenaeum was incorporate up the street in 1807 as a private reading room, and soon evolved the magazine, "The North American Review," still published to this day. The Athenaeum is the oldest and largest membership library in the U.S. Feminist journalist Margaret Fuller studied here, as did Daniel Webster and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Parker House served as a magnet for the early Boston brain trust. Originating in the Literary Club and Magazine Club, two private associations of the mid-1850s, the Saturday Club began as a small group of friends who chose The Parker House for their festive roundtables on the last Saturday afternoon of every month. The afternoons were taken up with poetry reading, impassioned discussions, and book critiques. Longfellow drafted "Paul Revere's Ride" at the Saturday Club. Dickens gave his first American reading of "A Christmas Carol" to patrons, and all that literature was washed down with heady doses of endless Parker House elixirs.

The Omni Parker House
Press Room has moved, but
retains its historic tradition,
where JFK announced
his candicacy for senator.

The Omni Parker House still retains the fabled Press Room, with artifacts displayed in the Dickens Room, and it is still used for meetings and dining, replete with the marble fireplace mantle Dickens used. John F. Kennedy announced his first bid as a Massachusetts senator from here.

Literary notables still gather at the Omni Parker House today. The new Literary Trail of Greater Boston was launched at a gala dinner there in 1999. Get the Literary Trail of Great Boston at bookstores. You can take a guided group tour ($20, includes lunch at the Colonial Inn in Concord; call: 617/574-5950) or go alone on the 20 mile route that begins at The Parker House, the official first stop on the walking and driving tour that heads to Concord, Emerson's home, and ends at Harvard Square in Cambridge. You will visit the homes and gathering places of America's most beloved authors. You will visit Orchard House where Louise May Alcott wrote "Little Women," and Walden Pond, where Emerson was inspired. You will experience the Athens of America, The Boston Public Library, the first free library in the U.S.

Quincy Marketplace and Fanueuil Hall are within walking distance. Today's Boston Theater District is only a few short blocks down Tremont Street. The Colonial Theater is the oldest continuously operating theater in Boston. The hotel is a sponsor of "Broadway in Boston," using the Colonial's fine facilities. In 1999 Gerald Charles Dickens, the novelist's great-great-grandson, reminisced at the hotel while appearing in his one man rendition of "A Christmas Carol" at Tremont Temple—and he was served the same meal as the late, great author in 1867—oysters with caviar, roast filet of beef fortiere, and Duchess potatoes.

Guests can workout with new
state-of-the-art fitness equipment.

Today's Omni Parker House is nothing like the original. In 1860 a six story addition was added, with another wing added three years later. Parker died in 1884 with no heir apparent. (His two sos preceeded him in death.) The hotel expanded again after Parker's death with an eight story annex and exterior decorations. In 1925 the original marble palace was destroyed and a more modern "new" Parker House was erected, the one we know today, completed in 1927. One of the original wings remained open during construction, allowing The Parker House to maintain its designation as America's oldest operating hotel. The 1927 version is even more beautiful than its predecessor.

At 14 stories high with polished Quincy granite on the exterior, lush ornamented public chambers with oak paneling, artfully plastered ceilings, crystal chandeliers, bronze detailed doors, it opened with 800 guest rooms. In 1969 the hotel was acquired by the Dunfey family, owners of the Omni Hotels (which they acquired in 1986), and the Omni Parker House became their 40 property flagship. In 1996, the Omni Hotels/North America was acquired by a holding company. In 2001 a major renovation was completed, making The Omni Parker House a 4-Diamond, Boston financial center hostelry favorite, with 18 elegant meeting rooms named after famous authors, 23,000 square feet feet of convention space, a business center, modern fitness center with state-of-the-art equipment, rooms with HBO cable TV, high speed internet data ports, and message phones.

Fanueuil Hall as viewed from
The Omni Parker House's
new Rooftop Ballroom.

Today The English Grille Room is in the former billiard room in the basement. The Last Hurrah Bar is now on the main lobby, with the former saloon a fitness center. The mezzanine level lobby that was a lounge, landing, and reading library, is now Parker's Bar. An old banquet hall is the contemporary Press Room. The 1935 Rooftop Terrace closed in 1969, and is now open for special functions as The Rooftop Ballroom. The 800 guest chambers of 1927 are now 551 larger, uniquely shaped rooms and suites.

Every President since Ulysseys S. Grant has stayed at the historic hostelry.
There are reports that Harvey Parker's ghost roams the halls, checking the perfection of his hotel and restaurant that still bears his name—a host that could not bring himself to leave.

Remember the words of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his poem, "At The Saturday Club":

"Such guests!
What famous names its record boasts,

Whose owners wander in the mob of ghosts!"

Feature by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature, "Schooner Captain Capital."