|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
The number of puns you could think of is probably endless, like “from hard time to French wine” or “from daily count to thread count.” That’s because one Massachusetts corrections landmark has gone – here’s one more – from barbed wire to braised ribs.
The $150 million, five-year transformation of Boston’s former Charles Street Jail into the new Liberty Hotel has been completed, and the hotel isn’t trying to hide its history. In fact, they’re playing off of it, starting with a carefully chosen name.
“Choosing the name for our hotel was probably the toughest part,” says Regan Dillon, public relations director for the Liberty. “We made a conscious decision to ‘liberate’ it from its past. We used the idea of liberty and freedom being what it is now versus what it used to mean here at the time.”
The Charles Street Jail opened in 1851 as a promising symbol of jail reform. It was built in the shape of a cross, with four wings extending from a central, octagonal rotunda. The layout allowed inmates to congregate during the day but return to segregated cells at night, a design decision that made the jail an international model for prisons built during the late 1800s. The imposing granite structure was hidden from the public eye for years behind high brick walls and barbed wire. Now the walls are down, and doormen await guests at the entrance with a smile.
“Our team really pursued the idea that this is not a place of confinement anymore,” Regan says. “You come here by choice, stay here by choice. We wanted our environment to feel liberating and free.”
Even though the jail had to be thoroughly modernized to keep up with today’s luxury standards, much of jail’s original exterior and interior has not been altered.
“We kept a variety of the jail’s original cell doors and bars,” says Gary Johnson, the architect who designed the Liberty. “A portion of one of the original catwalks was retained and we built new ‘catwalks’ around the original rotunda by reusing portions of the old railings. So we really combined the old and the new.”
Johnson added a new 16-story tower with 270 guest rooms to the original structure. There are 18 brick-walled guest rooms, a grand ballroom, meeting rooms, and a restaurant and bar within the former jail itself. Getting new guest rooms into an old jail was a tricky operation to say the least.
“We had to remove the cell blocks which were made of brick walls and stone slab floors,” Johnson explains. “The cell blocks also supported the roof and we had to replace that with new floors for hotel rooms all the while keeping the roof fully supported.”
The guest rooms are a far cry from the former cells, featuring imported bed linens, floor to ceiling windows, flat screen TVs, and private bars. Even with all these creature comforts, the Liberty team was determined to maintain what they call their “jailness.”
“Once the old building was evaluated and we knew what we were dealing with in terms of size, construction, and historic restrictions, then we were able to see beyond the cells and bars and focus on the grandeur of the architecture,” Johnson says. “Keeping the historic building and deciding to place all of the public functions in it so that it became the feature led us to a beautiful and elegant hotel solution.”
The Liberty doesn’t only utilize its historic architecture to keep the essence of the jail alive. There is a slew of jail terminology embedded in the hotel’s everyday culture. Instead of “do not disturb signs,” when guests want peace and quiet they hang a “Solitary” sign on the door. The bar on the ground floor, called Alibi, is set up in place of the jail’s old “drunk tank,” where inebriated arrestees sobered up. The bar includes fully restored cell blocks with the original iron-bar doors and blue stone flooring.
“We didn’t want to lose our jailness,” says Dillon, “but we wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t come across as dark. We incorporated it into what we think are very subtle ways that are somewhat playful, but also relate back to its history.”
There’s also Clink, the hotel restaurant and bar, where waiters wear uniforms featuring hand-stenciled inmate numbers. At Clink, guests can try espresso braised short ribs, foie gras, and duck confit flatbread. For extreme decadence, the hotel’s one-bedroom “Escape” suites have a master bedroom with king bed, one and a half bathrooms, and separate living and dining areas.
“With the playfulness, it was a fine line to walk,” Dillon adds. “Obviously this building has a dark history. A lot of people didn’t want to be here.”
That dark history dates back to 1973, when the US District Court ruled that the jail violated the constitutional rights of its prisoners due to inhumane living conditions. In 1990, the prisoners were moved to the new Suffolk County Jail built on Nashua Street in Boston, and Charles Street was closed. Even with these events, the folks at Liberty aren’t worried about their guests being afraid to stay.
“I think people are really excited and interested in the history and the architecture,” Dillon says. “They’re interested to see how it is going to actually be a hotel. Before you come in, it’s very hard to envision the space until you’re standing in it. People stop at the entrance and literally gasp.”
From check-in to check-out, the Liberty is happy to be taking their guests’ collective breath away as they aim to provide a truly – this is the last one - captivating experience.
See photos of the transformed jail
More on the jail’s history
Listen to an NPR show about this story
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