The Bard on Beach Street

I was walking down Beach Street in Boston’s Chinatown the last week, and came across a bust of Shakespeare carved in high relief on the wall of a building.


No sign, no plaque, nothing to explain why Shakespeare might be unexpectedly peering out at passersby on a busy side street amidst the Vietnamese restaurants and places to buy Bubble Tea.

When I got home–after seeing the marvelous new musical “Matilda” over the Boston Opera House–I started to poke around online about it. Others had come across the Bard on Beach, but there didn’t seem to be much more than that.

800px-Phillis_Wheatley_frontispieceCenturies ago, this whole area had been the South Cove, a body of water that separated the South Boston area from the city proper until it was filled in during the first part of the nineteenth century. Beach Street still retains the memory of the seaport that was here–indeed, we know that 18th century slave-trading ships arrived to the port at the corner of Beach and Tyler Streets, and that one African girl was sold there in 1761 whom the world would come to know as the poet Phillis Wheatley.

Later in time, the area came to be the theatre district, and even now the big theatres are not so far away (like the one where I saw “Matilda”). Around the corner from Beach on Washington Street was the old Globe Theatre, built in 1903 and still standing, although it has been a Dim Sum restaurant called “Empire Garden” now for quite some time (the dining room is still undisguisedly the old gilded lobby).  It seemed to me that this must be the answer–surely the Globe Theatre must be connected somehow with the bust of Shakespeare! Perhaps it was the side office, or something? But no, you can see in the screen-shot of the 3D satellite view below that the Globe/Empire Garden indicated by the green arrow is distinct from the Shakespeare bust building indicated by the blue one.

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A 1988 study by the Boston Landmarks Commission had more information–they listed 7-15 Beach Street as “The Shakesperian Inn.” Aha!  It makes perfect sense that theatre-goers making a night of it, or even travelling acting companies, would want to stay at an inn named for Shakespeare. There is even reason to believe that the inn was something of a bohemian hang-out.  According to a Boston Post report from 1901:

Landlord William Hennessy of the Shakespearean Inn in denying admission to teh [sic] Rev. Herbert S. Johnson and his party to the ladies’ café because they were not accompanied by ladies followed a rule that has been in vogue at his hotel ever since he opened. It is known to the frequenters of the Inn that no hotel in the city is conducted more carefully, and that, too, in a neighborhood where every effort is made to break down rules of propriety and decorum. Mr. Hennessy has established the reputation of meeting all difficulties and conforming to the laws and police regulations as well, if not better, than any other hotel proprietor in the city.

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(I have not seen this article myself, but quote it from the Lost Womyn’s Space blog, which has transcribed it.)  The Inn itself seems to have been built around 1885, and who knows how long it was a ladies’ only cafe. Alas, by 1902, it was a far rougher place, according to another newspaper account, where a dispute over an unclean glass could lead to suicide-murder in public.

Of the landlord, William Hennessy, I note from a 1901 ad in The Feather magazine that he seems also to have done a trade in fancy pigeons from the Inn’s lofts– “All Varieties of Booted Tumblers at reasonable prices; also a number of prize-winners. Whitesides my specialty.”

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So, who knew there was so much going on here for the Bard to witness?

 

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Birds, Boston, Drama, England, Family, Nautical, Poetry, Race, Slavery, Statues & Monuments. Bookmark the permalink.

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