Omni Parker House: Boston Legends and Historic Guests

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Posted August 6, 2013 by Scott Kearnan in Business
The historic Omni Parker House

Every building in Boston has a story. But when you’re the oldest continuously operating hotel in the country, you’re going to have a guest book longer than an encyclopedia set.

And indeed, the Omni Parker House Hotel, which was founded as the Parker House in 1855, has hosted esteemed authors, star athletes, famous presidents and, well, famous assassins. I’ll offer an abridged version of the celebrity guest list, but here’s an important primer on the hotel’s place in local history:

Its namesake, Harvey D. Parker, arrived in Boston from Maine in 1825 with one dollar in his pocket. Seven years of coachman work later, he had saved $432 — and used it to buy his favorite lunch café, naming it Parker’s Restaurant. It became popular, he took a business partner, and launched a plan to raze the adjacent mansion and build a high-end hotel that would attract the visiting elite. So he did. And it did. And it still does: Now the Omni Parker House, it’s been named among the top 10 historic hotels in the country and its Parker’s Restaurant still gets rave ratings. More than anything, the handsome parlors and sophisticated, classic Brahmin vibe of the hotel are still unmistakably Boston.

And so are some of the names that have come through its doors over the years. Maybe they, more than anything else, pay tribute to the hotel’s storied history. So — who turned a key here?

Charles Dickens: The famous author lived here for two years, during which time he wrote the now-classic A Christmas Carol. He also performed it here as his first public reading (the gilded mirror he used to rehearse is still on display.) Dickens was part of the Saturday Club, a weekly gathering of prominent authors and other intellectuals that also included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who here drafted “Paul Revere’s Ride” — right across the street from the famous midnight rider’s final resting spot.

John F. Kennedy: Bigwig politicians and presidents have always been among the Parker House’s most frequent guests. It’s right near the State House, after all. But among the most prominent was JFK: He announced his candidacy for Congress here, proposed to Jackie at Table 40 in the restaurant, and even held his bachelor party in the press room.

John Wilkes Booth: Abraham Lincoln’s infamous assassin stayed at the Parker House in April 1865, just before doing the dastardly deed. In fact, he was spotted practicing his aim at a shooting range near the hotel. A week after leaving Boston, Booth killed the president at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln himself never stayed at the Parker, but it did host his wife Mary Todd as a guest several years before his death.

Malcolm X

Many famous faces came through the hotel’s front door. Civil rights leader Malcolm X once worked in the restaurant. Photo via WikiCommons.

Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X: Food has always been central to the Parker House’s identity. Not only did it start as a restaurant, but even as a hotel Harvey D. Parker emphasized its culinary side. Long before the time of “food TV,” Parker hired his era’s celebrity chef, French gourmet Sanzian, at an annual salary of $5,000 (for comparison, consider that even a good cook made less than $500.) It was here that Sanzian created the Boston Cream Pie, which would later be served by groundbreakers of an entirely different sort. Vietnamese political revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was a baker from 1911 to 1913, and civil rights activist Malcolm X was a restaurant busboy.

Charlotte Cushman: Okay, her name may not ring a bell. That’s for good reason: Cushman was a renowned stage actress but that was, you know, back in the mid-1800s. Still, she’s a name worth knowing, and one that influences Omni Parker House Hotel history to this day. The place has a reputation for being a supposedly haunted hotel, with rumors and reports especially strong about its third floor — where Cushman died as a hotel guest, and, so they say, never checked out.

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