Though I myself do not eat oysters (or shellfish of any kind—not for religious reasons, but because I just don’t like shellfish), I have a soft spot for the Union Oyster House, which celebrates its 180th birthday today.
When I worked for the School of Theology at Boston University, I would take groups of alumni/ae to the Union Oyster House for a large and festive dinner every May during Reunion Weekend. Most of the reunioners were elderly Methodist ministers (the majority of them coming from the year’s 50th class). Back in the 1950s when they were young and idealistic seminary students, many of them spent their summers in between academic years doing civil rights work in the South. Many of them spent time in Southern jails for participating in voter registration drives. As we chatted over bowls of clam chowder (for them, not me) and plates of baked haddock, their stories never failed to inspire me.
In those days, Boston University’s School of Theology was a pioneer in social justice ministry, its graduates speaking out against racism, inequality, and bigotry masquerading as religiosity. That legacy still survives with many at the School (including the former dean) taking a vocal stand against the discrimination of GLBT people within the Methodist Church (it’s a Methodist seminary after all) and our nation. Moreover, the School remains a staunch champion of theological liberalism.
Now that I work closer to the Government Center/Haymarket Square area where the restaurant is located, I pass it when I take lunchtime walks, usually to buy wine at Martignetti’s in the North End. Admittedly, I love the building as much as (if not more than) the restaurant. The building itself is one of downtown Boston’s oldest surviving structures, dating to the 1720s. Only a handful of buildings (including some meeting houses and a few residential buildings in the North End) are older.
Before there were brick rowhouses with bowed fronts in the South End or elegant townhouses sprung up in the Back Bay, the structure that has been home to the Union Oyster House since 1826 stood overlooking Union Street. The building was part of a massive building campaign to replace Boston’s wooden structures with brick following a series of devastating fires during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Its elegant brick façade speaks of the architectural revolution that swept through colonial Boston as the port city grew in size and wealth during the first half of the 18th century.
Shown above is the Union Oyster House ca. 1919.