Visitors can shuffle reverentially through the tiny cemetery at King's Chapel and Burying Ground.
Visitors can shuffle reverentially through the tiny cemetery at King's Chapel and Burying Ground.
Courtesy the Freedom Trail Foundation

The Ladder District, One Step at a Time

By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Some neighborhoods -- say, Greenwich Village -- are born hip; some, like Washington's Penn Quarter, achieve hipness; and some have hipness thrust upon them. I give you . . . Boston's Ladder District.

"Oh, you mean Downtown Crossing," says my Beantown friend Barbara, who knows from hip Boston neighborhoods. Only, in this case, not quite. That's the thing about nouveau-hip districts: Their old identities linger, so locals are sometimes slow to catch on.

Every Bostonian knows where Downtown Crossing is. It's the area that encompasses the centuries-old crossroads of Washington and Summer streets and extends from Boston Common to the financial district. Some still remember it as the city's former Combat Zone. Most, however, associate Downtown Crossing with a certain kind of basics-and-bargains shopping, thanks to the longtime presence of the fabled Filene's department store and other retail establishments.

The Ladder District lies within Downtown Crossing. Study this tiny central section on a city map and eventually the name clicks: Tremont Street to the west and Washington Street to the east form two rails of a ladder; the hatch of little streets stretching between the rails, from Boylston Street to the south to School Street to the north, are its rungs.

"It's really quite simple," says Boston-based publicist Chris Lyons. A few years ago, Lyons and two colleagues, who represented various pioneering businesses in the revitalizing neighborhood, brainstormed to decide on a distinctive name. "We wanted to re-create its image as something different than Downtown Crossing, which is more about retail, and separate from the theater district to the south." The name Ladder District "apparently was used down at City Hall in the olden days," Lyons explains.

So. Is the Ladder District worth a climb? Let's take a look.

Historically Hip

Start at the intersection of Tremont and School streets. Better yet, step inside the building on this corner, the Omni Parker House (60 School St., 617-227-8600,; rooms from $180 a night), "America's longest continuously operating luxury hotel," and make your way to the first floor's Last Hurrah restaurant. There you can mull over the hotel's history as you graze on its famous Parker House rolls or Boston cream pie, both created here 150 years ago.

Hotelier Harvey Parker, it appears, was a 19th-century hipster. Already a successful restaurateur, the enterprising Parker seized on this downtown locale, close to the Massachusetts State House and theaters, and set about building his white marble, five-story hotel to tap a ready-made clientele.

When it opened in 1855, Parker's was an immediate hit. Luminaries of all persuasions, from Ulysses S. Grant to Sarah Bernhardt, stopped here. Literary celebrities Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry David Thoreau held raucous meetings here the last Saturday of every month. Charles Dickens lived here during his 1867-68 American lecture tour, happily sharing both his gin and his recipe for gin punch one November night in 1868.

Many years, mod cons and renovations later, the Omni Parker still bustles, and famous names, especially politicians, still gather here.

The neighborhood already had centuries of history behind it by the time Harvey Parker appeared on the scene. In the 18th century, this was a residential area of homes, taverns, churches and shops. As you sit in the picture-windowed Last Hurrah, you've got a front-row view of one of them: King's Chapel and Burying Ground (corner of School and Tremont streets, 617-523-1749, The Stone Chapel, as it was once called, and adjacent cemetery are a stop on the Boston Freedom Trail and usually astir with tourists.

Bostonians gathered here to worship, but also to listen to concerts; the chapel long has been lauded for its musical program, attracting even George Washington, who attended a concert on Oct. 27, 1789. If you're here on a Tuesday at noon or a Sunday at 4:30, you can listen to classical or jazz recitals, chamber or instrumental programs.

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