Metro

Ask the Globe

Shakespeare in the Tow Zone: What’s up with Chinatown’s bust of the Bard?

A little-known bust of Shakespeare is part of a building near 15 Beach Street in  Chinatown.
David L. Ryan
Tucked away down a Chinatown side street, a bust of Shakespeare has watched as the city around it grow.

Have you seen something out there that you’d like answers to? A giant door? Or perhaps a graveyard of rocking horses, a strange stone marker on an island, or old trophies under a bridge. Let us know by filling out this form. If your suggestion is picked, we’ll check it out for you.

The wheel is come full circle: I am here.”

-Edmund, “King Lear,” Act 5, scene 3

***

Adorning the brick wall of an unassuming apartment building, down a side street in Chinatown, is a blandly painted bust of one of history’s great playwrights and poets. Unlike most of Boston’s monuments to prominent figures, this unmarked relic has been largely ignored for more than a century, as the landscape around it has dramatically shifted and changed.

Advertisement

For a scribe who delivered us the magic of “Macbeth,” the revenge-soaked tragedy of “Hamlet,” and the everlasting romance of “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare sure is getting short shrift on Beach Street.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The bust of the Bard was present for the grand opening of Sweet Kingdom dessert and Spicy World, the restaurants that flank it. He watched silently as a “Tow Zone” sign was erected in front of his damaged nose. When the skyscrapers appeared, and the parking garage across the street came to be, Shakespeare took it all in, dust collecting on his receding hairline.

Is this any way to treat the Bard of Avon? I thinketh not.

But who speaks for the master of quill and ink? Not many, it seems. An air of mystery surrounds his origins, the answers to his beginnings most elusive. A reader asked about the lonely bust at 15 Beach St. and so, we set out to find answers.

The cast-iron plaque, which is bordered by a cream-colored decorative frame, is built into the façade of the Chinagate Apartments, a complex near the city’s Theatre District and Downtown Crossing.

BOSTON, MA - 11/08/2019: A little-known Shakespeare bust that is on a building near 15 Beach Street, Chinatown/Theater District area in Chinatown, Boston. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff ) SECTION: METRO TOPIC xxshakespeare
David L Ryan
For one of history’s greatest authors, Shakespeare gets short shrift on Beach Street in Boston.
Advertisement

During a recent visit to the building, the front door was locked. So, we knocked. (Hmm. This sounds...familiar).

“By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,”yelled this reporter, to himself, hoping to gain entry. “Open, locks, Whoever knocks!”

No one answered. Peeking inside, a phone number for a property management company was visible. After calling and getting transferred around, Sam Lan, the building’s property manager, got back to us.

“Somebody had asked a question about it before,” said Lan. “I don’t quite know what the answer was, but there is definitely some history to the building.”

“Tempt not a desperate man,” Sam Lan.

Advertisement

Our clues by now were as wispy as the hairs of Shakespeare’s curly mustache. But we marched on, and decided to turn to the city’s art commission. Although the bust looks more like an architectural feature than a commissioned work by a famous artist, we thought they might know something about its backstory.

A City Hall spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the commission had no details because the bust is not in their art collection. Their best guess, she said, was that the building it’s on used to be a theater of some type, from when the Theatre District extended to that street.

Alas — another dead end.

But looking at the building’s history sounded like a good avenue to take. And the best person for this was the Globe’s Jeremiah Manion, a staff librarian who is ruthless in his ability to track down historical information.

Manion quickly delivered a stack of documents mentioning Beach Street and some adjacent city blocks. A form from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s database was part of the bounty.

The document, filled out by the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1979, was a nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places in an effort to designate the Beach Street-Knapp Street area — and a collection of buildings within its bounds — a historic district. (It was officially placed on the National Register in December 1980, a spokeswoman from the historical commission said).

Mentioned in the form was the stretch of addresses from 7 to 15 Beach Street, the latter of which is now the Chinagate Apartments.

According to the paperwork, in the late 1800s, the nearby Washington Street area was popular for hotels, because of its proximity to the “Boston to Albany and Old Colony Railroad terminals.”

“One such hotel,” the form reads, “the ‘Shakespearian Inn,’ remains at 7-15 Beach Street.”

The form described the Shakespearian Inn as unique for its architectural features, “including three 4-story metal oriel windows, elaborate cast-iron capitals ...”

And, hark!

“... a cast-iron plaque of William Shakespeare.”

The five-story Renaissance Revival building dates back to 1885, and was remodeled in 1897 as the Shakespearian Inn, according to the form.

With the name of the property linked to the bust, we searched deeper in newspaper archives to see if we could find out more. But like earlier pursuits, it shed little light on the inn’s past or when it shuttered.

The hotel did, however, make headlines in 1902, when a customer’s complaint about a dirty beer mug turned into a truly Shakespearean tragedy.

A clip from the Saturday, Feb. 1, issue of The Portsmouth Herald, reads like a play in its own right: “As the result of insults received in the bar room of the Shakespearian Inn, on Beach street, John Borette, a carpenter, thirty-three years of age, shot and instantly killed George McGibbons, aged thirty years, this afternoon. He then took his own life before he could be prevented by the crowd that pursued him.”

More than 100 years after the “Boston Tragedy” in broad daylight, the building embarked on a new chapter, shedding its connection to the busy hotel district.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority — now the Boston Planning & Development Agency — approved a plan by Chinagate Housing Associates to turn the vacant structure at 7-15 Beach Street into 15 low-and-moderate income subsidized-housing units, according to Globe archives.

“The building. . . has some architectural merit and at one time was known as the Shakespeare hotel,” the Globe reported in 1983. “A sculpture of Shakespeare still adorns the building.”

When our search began, it seemed odd that the bust’s origins were somewhat obscure.

But not to John Tobin, an English professor at UMass Boston and an expert in all things Shakespeare. He said a mostly neglected Shakespeare bust is actually “oddly appropriate.”

“We often think of Shakespeare as some ivory tower poet, but he was anything but. Instead, he was a local boy who made good, worked hard, had flaws, and lived a complicated family life,” Tobin said in a poetic e-mail. “He has more in common with many of his readers then and now, than does the Shakespeare who has been portrayed as a distant genius who produced the greatest works of English literature the world has ever known.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.