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, http://www.omniparkerhouse.com; 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, http://www.kings-chapel.org). 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.

In any case, swallow that last morsel of Boston cream pie and cross the street to tour the 1749 chapel. Its wineglass-shaped pulpit dates from 1717 and the box pews have been here from the start. Paul Revere cast the bell, "the sweetest bell I ever made," for the church in 1816, and that bell still tolls today. The tiny cemetery holds gravestones dating from the mid-1600s.

Now, stroll down School Street and turn right, leaving the noise and mayhem of construction behind to enter 310 Washington St., the white-spired Old South Meeting House (310 Washington St., 617-482-6439, http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org), built in 1729 for Puritan services. An audio tour leads you around the airy, unembellished interior, re-creating the historic town meetings held here over the centuries. This was the place to be on the night of Dec. 16, 1773, when 5,000 colonists gathered to argue over the Tory tax on tea. "This meeting can do nothing more to save our country!" declaims an anguished Samuel Adams, setting off a commotion and a band of rebels known as the Sons of Liberty, who beat it down to Griffin's Wharf, where they dump 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor: the Boston Tea Party.

Back outside, a walk along Washington Street introduces you one by one to the ladder rungs. Venture down any one of them to find a local legend.

On Winter Street lies the Original Tremont Tearoom (48-50 Winter St., 617-338-8100, http://www.tremont-tearoom.com), whose third-floor salon has been offering tea and fortunetelling since 1936. Across the street and down a dark passageway is Boston's famous Locke-Ober restaurant (3 Winterplace, 617-542-1340, http://www.lockeober.com), which opened in 1875 for men only but now has a woman (and one of Boston's best chefs), Lydia Shire, in the kitchen.

On West Street, another prized attraction is the creaky, three-story Brattle Bookshop (9 West St., 800-447-9595, http://www.brattlebookshop.com), which lays claim to being America's oldest continually operating bookstore (since 1825).

Hiply Historic

Now look again: You'll see coolness poking out all over. Go back to Tremont Street, for example, same block as the Omni Parker House but opposite end, and stop in front of the grande dame's antithesis, the Nine Zero Hotel (90 Tremont St., 617-772-5800, http://www.ninezero.com; rooms from $215). The Kimpton boutique property is unabashedly contemporary, with nonstop techno music in the shiny metal-and-glass lobby, and whimsically decorated guest rooms.

The hotel's restaurant, KO Prime (617-772-0202, http://www.koprimeboston.com; dinner entrees from $24, although most skew much higher), opened in May. As any Boston hipster worth her skinny jeans knows, KO stands for Ken Oringer, a Boston culinary darling with a mop of dark hair and a puppy dog smile. Boston's trendiest are here, all right, sipping exquisite margaritas and sampling select cuts of steak.

Follow Tremont Street to the final rung, Avery Street, where the ultramodern Ritz-Carlton Boston Common (10 Avery St., 617-574-7100, http://www.ritzcarlton.com; rooms from $379) stakes out the luxe end of hip, which includes not just the hotel but residences, the fancy Sports Club/LA fitness center and its glass-fronted Blu restaurant overlooking Boston Common (4 Avery St., 617-375-8550, http://www.blurestaurant.com), and the up-upscale Roche Bobois furniture store. At the very least, sidle into the Ritz's newly poshed-up lobby lounge, sip a martini and observe the comings and goings of the glitzy guests.

By now you will have noticed the Ladder District's charming incongruities. Between that chichi Roche Bobois and the tony Thomas Pink men's store, old and new face off, as age-old family shops confront modern, big-name chains. A pushcart vendor hawking burritos draws toughies in gangsta garb, students in tattered jeans, Bluetoothed business professionals and string-bean waifs holding tight to their attitudes.

After Dark

The mishmash of types, sights and attractions adds a certain allure, no question. But if the Ladder District didn't have a night-life scene, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

Up a rung from West Street is Temple Place, home to the Ladder District's two hippest restaurant/lounges. Mantra (52 Temple Pl., 617-542-8111, http://www.mantrarestaurant.com; entrees in the $24-$30 range), an 1890 bank building, opened in 2001 as a sexy, shimmering French-Indian restaurant with red suede love seats and a room-length bar that once served as the tellers' stations. Guests nosh on fresh coconut- and herb-crusted halibut and seared foie gras with spiced lobster, then stay past dinner, when Mantra's lounge scene picks up.

Across the street is the more intimate Ivy (49 Temple Pl., 617-451-1416, http://www.ivyrestaurantgroup.com; small plates range from $8 to $14), whose exposed, century-old brick walls and high ceiling contrast with the trendy velvet lounge chairs and leather banquette decor. Ivy's mood is mellower, and the menu -- creative Italian -- more affordable than Mantra's. Everyone's popping arancini (fried risotto balls) into their mouths between sips of prosecco. Wine is a deal, priced at $26 a bottle no matter which you choose from a list of 60. And so is dessert: gelato on the house. Downstairs is Cava, a dining room that morphs into a lounge as the night gets underway.

Up on School Street is Ruth's Chris Steakhouse (Old City Hall, 45 School St., 617-742-8401, http://www.ruthschris.com; entrees from about $30), an elegant surprise tucked inside the grand 1865 Old City Hall building guarded by tall statues of Benjamin Franklin and Josiah Quincy. Over on Bromfield Street is the down-home, downstairs Silvertone Bar and Grill (69 Bromfield St., 617-338-7887), jammed nightly with office workers and neighborhood regulars, all shunning the specialty cocktails for beer and wine, and the few pricey entrees for grilled cheese and steak and onion sandwiches.

Any one of these restaurants is a destination in itself, especially on weekends, when serious partying goes on. But lots of people dine here, then head to one of the Ladder District's entertainment venues. Down an alley off Tremont Street is the Orpheum Theater (1 Hamilton Pl., 617-482-0650); built in 1852 to stage symphony performances, it has for decades featured rock and alternative music performers, from the Clash to the Decembrists.

The 1928 Opera House (539 Washington St., 617-259-3400, http://www.bostonoperahouse.com) reopened in 2004 after a $30 million renovation and books sold-out Broadway musicals. Right next door is Felt (533 Washington St., 617-350-5555, http://www.feltclubboston.com), a four-story nightclub playground with billiards and booze.

On the Horizon

Bostonians who aren't yet hip to the Ladder District (or its name) no doubt soon will be, as every day brings news of another redevelopment project.

The $625 million Franklin Street Plan promises to create a 24-hour neighborhood and the feel of an "urban oasis park" as it sets about transforming the landmark Filene's (closed last year) and adjacent 1905 Filene's Basement buildings in a way that marries "historic preservation with a 21st-century mixed-use design."

Luxury condos, a celebrity-chef restaurant and a spa are coming to Province Street, and renovation of two historic theaters on Washington Street, the 1932 Paramount and the 1876 Modern, soon will be underway.

Completion of these ventures is a way off. Visit the Ladder District now, though, and you'll discover a neighborhood that's still trying to figure out how cool it wants to be. It's a dilemma any hipster might relate to: how to adopt an au courant pose without jettisoning one's essential identity.

The new name was the easy part, it turns out. Mixing all the ingredients -- the pushcart vendors and the sexy restaurants, the old-time jewelers and the reinvented department stores, the historic attractions and the nightclub playgrounds -- into a genuine, viable and beckoning concoction: There's the riddle.

Or is the Ladder District's contradictory personality its distinct attraction? That's for you to find out.

For more information on Boston and the Ladder District, contact the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (888-733- 2678, http://www.bostonusa.com) or the Downtown Crossing Association (617-482-2139, http://www.downtowncrossing.org).

Elise Hartman Ford last wrote for Travel about literary festivals.

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