Joseph Lee: famed hotelier, restaurateur, inventor

Anthony W. Neal | 2/27/2014, 6 a.m.
After having spent more than a decade of his childhood in bondage, in the late 19th century African American Joseph ...
Joseph Lee purchased the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, Mass., in 1883. The exclusive hotel hosted many distinguished guests including the family of President Benjamin Harrison, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Walbridge A. Field and the Earl and the Countess of Aberdeen.

Joseph Lee received a patent in 1895 for his invention of a bread crumbing machine.

Joseph Lee received a patent in 1895 for his invention of a bread crumbing machine.

Many distinguished guests stayed at the exclusive Woodland Park Hotel. For instance, on September 16, 1891, President Benjamin Harrison’s family paid a visit. Mrs. Harrison boarded there for about three weeks, while the rest of the family — Mr. and Mrs. J. R. McKee and their two children — spent the winter at the hotel.

How did the president of the United States learn of the Woodland Park Hotel? Six days before the presidential party arrived, Lee explained, “The whole story is this. Mr. McKee, as you know, is a Boston man of business and has not only known of me and the Woodland Park for a long time but has been out here and is also a member of the Boston Trade Club. He is also aware of the charms of The Abbotsford, my Boston hotel, and has said many times that he intended to bring the President and his family to Woodland Park.” The hotel owner added, “Mr. McKee visited the house last summer” and “enjoyed his stay very much.”

For several seasons, Walbridge Abner Field, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, was a guest at the hotel. On November 24, 1891, the Earl and Countess of Aberdeen and Lady Marjorie Gordon were guests, and on March 22, 1892, Lady Henry Somerset, a British philanthropist, temperance leader and champion of women’s rights, had a sojourn at the hotel.

Joseph Lee served on the executive committee of the Massachusetts Hotel Association, and he was a member of the Hotel Men’s Mutual Benefit Association. He also participated in the battle for civil rights. From Feb. 4 to Feb. 8, 1890, he served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Convention of Colored Men in Washington, D.C. There, the American Citizens’ Equal Rights Association was formed to secure the full rights of black men, especially in the South.

A contemporary observer noted that the Lees were “included in Boston’s leading colored society and no circle” was “complete without their presence.” He described Mrs. Lee as “a woman of culture and refinement and magnificent personal charms.”

Joseph Lee was a successful inventor as well. On Aug. 7, 1894, he acquired U.S. patent no. 524,042 for his dough-kneading machine, intended for use in hotels and large houses. On June 4, 1895, he secured U.S. patent no. 540,553 for his bread crumbing machine.

Due to a severe economic depression, which began in 1893, Lee gave up the Woodland Park Hotel in 1896. But the following year he opened the Pavilion Restaurant — a “grand elevated” fine dining establishment overlooking the Charles River and Norumbega Park. Norumbega Park was a popular new amusement park at the end of the Commonwealth Avenue trolley line, in Auburndale. It featured a variety of rides, a penny arcade, a deer park, an outdoor theatre, a gorgeous electric fountain, picnic areas and splendid canoeing on the Charles River.

A sightseer on July 16, 1897 recorded that trolley “cars run into the very park itself on a loop track, and just at the swell of the loop is the elevated restaurant of the renowned Joseph Lee, who served delicatessen under the roof or under the stars as his customers wish.” The Pavilion Restaurant seated more than 250 people.