France on Friday
Book: Walking Boston by Robert Todd Felton
A GUEST POST BY Robert Todd Felton
Bivalve Molluscs, French Royalty, and the Streets of Boston
One of the best parts of walking around Boston is that you are always bumping up against some surprising scrap of American history. Around one corner is the house where Paul Revere lived, or Ralph Waldo Emerson grazed cattle,…or the King of France taught French.
One of my favorite discoveries while writing the travel book Walking Boston was that the man who would become the last King of France in 1830, lived above a dry goods store near the waterfront and taught French to the young women of Boston.
At 41 Union Street, mere steps away from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market with their New England bustle, is a somewhat innocuous, brown, two-story building. Inside is the Union Oyster House, one of Boston’s landmark restaurants and the oldest restaurant in continuous use in the United States.
It boasts the requisite long history and famous anecdotes of Boston’s trademark establishments (the statesman and politician Daniel Webster used to down six plates of oysters accompanied by six whiskeys here). However, long before it became a restaurant, it was Capen’s Silk and Dry Goods Store and the room on the second floor was rented to an itinerant French tutor named Louis-Phillippe.
Louis-Phillippe had fled France in 1793 when he was forced into exile by political changes brought about by The French Reign of Terror. For years, he roamed around Europe avoiding French political entanglements but apparently not romantic ones. According to some sources, he left one illegitimate son in Milan and one in Finland. After living in Philadelphia and traveling throughout the eastern United States, Louis-Phillippe settled in Boston in 1796.
According to Union Oyster House co-owner Mary Ann Milano-Picardi (better known as “Ma”), Louis-Phillippe lived on the second floor of the building and made his living by tutoring the young ladies of Boston in French for about a year before moving on again. Louis-Phillippe finally ascended the throne as the King of the French in 1830 and ruled until 1848. Although he was the last “King” to rule France, Napoleon III called himself an “emperor” and was therefore the last monarch.
To find Louis-Phillippe’s room inside the Union Oyster House, go through the front door and head upstairs to the “The Louis-Phillippe Room.” According to “Ma,” it used to be known as the Pine Room, but so many people came in asking where Louis-Phillippe lived that they finally had to change the name. While you are up there, take a look for booth 18. President John F. Kennedy used to hide up there and eat in relative privacy. If all the tables are taken, sneak back downstairs to belly up to one of the best places in Boston to get fresh oysters. The huge wooden semicircular oyster bar serves a focal point for the room, and allows the shuckers to trade banter and quips with each other and the customers.
Mary Ann and her brother Joe are only the third owners of the restaurant and are dedicated to keeping its history alive. For example, Ma gathered all the historical information to have the building granted National Historic Landmark status in 2003 and provided the images for this article.
In fact, when I asked her if there was anything new about the Union Oyster House to highlight in the article, she replied, “oh no, we keep things pretty much the same.” In fact, Louis-Phillippe himself might just recognize his old digs.
You can find these stories and more in Robert Todd Felton’s Walking Boston. His newest secret traveling tip is a little-known website called Academic Ambassadors , where academics and non-profit professionals can find great deals at wonderful hotels. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.
My heartfelt thanks to Todd Felton for sharing with us this little-known story from his research for Walking Boston. The news that a French King not only lived in Boston, but supported himself by teaching French, made me utter Sacre Bleu! Now I simply MUST get back to Boston to try out the Oyster Bar and “visit” the King. Did YOU know??? What other secrets have you discovered in your travels? Do share!!