|By Howard Shapiro, The Philadelphia
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 27, 2005 - BOSTON -- All you travelers who are deep into history or American quirks or worldwide curiosities, tell me this:
What hotel is the longest continuously running hostelry in America and is now celebrating its 150th anniversary?
At what hotel was Malcolm Little a busboy before he became Malcolm X?
At what hotel was the pastry chef, in the famous hotel restaurant, a young man by the name of Ho Chi Minh? Yes, the same Ho Chi Minh. That one.
At what hotel's restaurant was the term scrod invented, as an all-purpose description of the catch of the day? (Many people think that scrod is a baby cod, although it's nowadays used as a catch-all word for different types of young fish.)
Can you guess it? Need some hints?
OK: It's all the same hotel. Given that the dateline on this column is Boston, that should narrow down the possible answers. Boston cream pie lovers, take note -- the confection was invented at the hotel restaurant. When John F. Kennedy was 7 years old, he made his first public speech, and it was at the hotel, where his grandpop, Honey Fitzgerald, was celebrating a birthday.
And here's the giveaway: A commonly eaten dinner roll is named for the place.
Well, I've gone too far, so I may as well say that the Parker House is filled not just with guests overnight, but also with history everyday. Many cities, as small as Little Rock and as big as New York, are home to hotels that have become solid pieces of the local history -- and are often well known enough, like Singapore's Raffles, to be tourist sites in their own right. Here in the United States, you have to look pretty hard to find a hotel as laden with history and celebrity, from the kitchen to the guest rooms, as Boston's Parker House.
It's officially the Omni Parker House. In the late '60s, the Omni hotel group purchased the hotel, at Tremont and School Streets -- across from the Boston Commons and Public Gardens, at the foot of Beacon Hill and just a few blocks from the Back Bay neighborhood, Faneuil Hall, and Boston Harbor. The Omni gave the interior of the imposing building a major restoration three years ago. This is no small undertaking when you're talking about hand-carved wood, bronze elevators, intricate chandeliers and other amenities, part of the olden-days craftsmanship of a regal hotel.
Hotels do not generally make it onto lists of attractions in most cities, with notable exceptions. Orlando has no problem with the notion; some hotels in Disney World and Universal Studios have acquired their own cachet as places to walk through and shop and eat. No city celebrates its hotels like Las Vegas, where visitors check out the places almost as a pilgrimage; Vegas is nothing without the glam and glitz of its hotel-casinos. And some cities cherish the notion of a world-class hotel restaurant.
I stayed in the Parker House a few months ago, and although I was aware it was historic, I knew none of the details. I was astonished to walk in the lobby and read signs about its place in hostelry history. A basic American instinct, not American history, caused me to make the reservation: It was a big bargain. I needed to be in Boston for a college reunion, and the "economy petite single room" was $122 a night, an unusually low price in a city whose hotel prices are often overblown without apparent reason.
I didn't know, as I made the booking, about Malcolm or Minh, or that Charles Dickens lived there for about two years and gave his first American reading of A Christmas Carol in the hotel. Or that the huge mirror he ordered for his room, so that he could practice all the story's characters, is still on display there. (Likewise, the pastry table Ho Chi Minh worked on is in the bake shop.) Or of the existence of the Saturday Club, a social group that met at the hotel and included the Stars of College Lit: Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne.
Or that JFK popped the question to Jackie in the famed restaurant, Parker's, and later had his stag party in the hotel's ultra-appointed Press Room.
There is no question that the Parker House is unreproducible, and it can even seem a little faded. The place reminds me of a relationship with any doyenne or old-money gentleman; you are willing to overlook the outdated clothes because you're so taken by the special demeanor, and I was willing to endure the tiny room (more Manhattan hotel-sized than Boston), overlook the drab hallway carpets and lusterless room curtains, and enjoy the manner and the manor. I did not have time to eat in the restaurant, but I can tell you that Parker House rolls rule the bread baskets.
On Wednesday, the hotel will celebrate itself with a gala, by invitation, in its rooftop ballroom. In a key attraction of the evening, Mark Dickens, the great-great-grandson of Charles, will perform a reading of A Christmas Carol, 138 years after the work's American debut on that spot. Already, the hotel staff has served the world's largest Boston cream pie to about 8,000 people outside Faneuil Hall in September. It took more than 41/2 hours to cut the thing.
"You always spend a lot of money on something that's been around a long time," said David Ritchie, the hotel's director of sales and marketing, in response to a question about whether owning the Omni Parker House is an expensive proposition. He said it with pride, in full knowledge that the cost of preserving history is worth it.
OMNI PARKER HOUSE: The hotel is at 60 School St. in Boston. At publication time, standard rooms cost about $160 a night. Check-in is at 3 p.m., check-out at noon. Phone: 1-888-444-6664. Web site: www.omniparkerhouse.com.
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