Not much about Jacob Wirth Co., the Boston landmark known for hearty German food, good beer, and 19th-century decor, has changed since its inception in 1868.
Over its nearly 150-year history, only six people have operated the restaurant as chief proprietors, according to the beer hall’s current owner, William Kevin Fitzgerald, who said Wednesday he was putting the historic site up for sale. “It’s a real piece of Boston history,” he said.
“The decor remained unchanged — mustard-colored walls, gaslight fixtures, rugged round tables and chairs with cane seats,” the Globe wrote in 1975, when the bar was last sold. “Dominating the long, narrow dining room is the great, dark wood bar, topped by a medallion of the mustachioed (sic) founder and a Latin motto: ‘Suum Cuique’ (To Each His Own).”
The sawdust that used to coat the floors was removed then — US government orders, the bar manager said — but the atmosphere remained “more or less the same.”
The bar’s founder, Jacob Wirth, emigrated from the wine-growing area of Kreuznach near Bingen, Germany, in the 1830s, according to the Globe archives.
He worked in a bakery before opening his eponymous restaurant on Eliot Street in 1868. Ten years later, he acquired the building on Stuart Street where it is located today. By the time of his death, the Globe wrote in his 1892 obituary, he was one of the city’s best-known German residents, one of the country’s largest wine importers (mostly from family vineyards in Germany), and “the first man to engage extensively in bottling beer for family use,” the Globe wrote.
His son, Jacob Wirth Jr., who was born just above what he called “the store” in 1880, would drop out of Harvard and run the restaurant about a decade after his father’s death. He is credited with turning the restaurant into a national and even global phenomenon, according to his 1965 Globe obituary.
The younger Wirth sold the family’s German vineyards for a “princely $137” after World War I, and would pass the reins onto his son-in-law, Frank Lindsey, after World War II. Wirth Jr.’s obituary claimed that the bar sold authentic beer throughout the Prohibition era, although that claim was later denied by a bar manager in 1975, who called Wirth “scrupulously law-abiding.”
“The mealtime atmosphere at Jake Wirth’s will be less clamorous today,” the Globe wrote when the younger Wirth died. “Aging waiters in black coats and white aprons won’t bawl their orders or rattle their dishes so noisily. . . But many a seidel of rich, dark beer is sure to be raised in tribute to Jacob Wirth.”
William J. Fitzgerald, the current owner’s father and a former Boston fire commissioner, bought Jacob Wirth Co. in 1975. He planned to tear the restaurant down if it struggled and expand the adjacent parking lot he owned, his son said.
But that same year, the Boston Landmark Commission designated the building and restaurant a historical landmark for ethnic and architectural reasons.
“The structures are scarce survivors of a century of urban change, soon to be the only remaining examples of their type — the bow-fronted Greek Revival row house — in an area in which they once abounded,” the commission’s original report said.
Because of that designation, William Kevin Fitzgerald, the current owner, expects the space will continue to operate as a restaurant after its sale, under the same name: Jacob Wirth.