Free at Last

A remarkable restoration transformed Boston’s notorious Charles Street Jail into the sparkling Liberty Hotel

The 18-foot-high brick wall that once obscured the jail was torn down, but the fine stone doorway at streel level still stands. Guest rooms fill the historic granite structure and a new 16-story brick tower just to the north.

Credit: Peter Vanderwarker

If you have always dreaded the prospect of a night in jail, Boston's Liberty Hotel might make you reconsider. The four-star hostelry at the foot of fashionable Beacon Hill is enjoying a renaissance—158 years after it opened as the imposing Charles Street Jail.

Designed by local architect Gridley James Fox Bryant, the jail once held accused criminals awaiting trial. Then, in 1990, a new facility opened nearby on Nashua Street. In 1991, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sold the National Register-listed jail to Massachusetts General Hospital, which pledged to retain the building's critical historic elements. Over the next decade, hospital officials conducted an elaborate reuse study, trying to determine how best to adapt the original structure. Finally, in 2000, Mass General decided to convert the jail into a hotel for patients and their families, as well as regular guests.

The following year, architects Cambridge Seven Associates took on the restoration, with Gary Johnson as the principal in charge. "When we first went inside, it had been unused for 10 years," remembers Johnson. "The roof was leaking badly, pigeons were perched inside, all the cells and the bars were still intact … It was pretty unkempt." Still, says Johnson, the stunning skeleton of the 1851 building—with an octagonal rotunda, an articulated stone facade, and original exposed brick walls—was not obscured. "Instantly you could see the potential to make it amazing."

One of the biggest challenges involved determining how to restructure cells—which measured only eight feet by 10 feet—into viable guest rooms.  "Five stories of cells were supporting the roof, but they were set away from the windows. Hotel rooms need windows!" Johnson says. Cambridge Seven implemented an elaborate engineering scheme to address the problem: Workers built a temporary external truss to support the roof and began removing the cell blocks from the top down, installing permanent interior trusses and beams as they went.

Johnson, who has worked on several hotel renovations and restorations, says that creating an entirely new purpose for the Charles Street Jail was a challenging experience: "It was built primarily to keep people in and the public out, and we wanted to do the exact opposite."

Cambridge Seven accomplished this by drawing attention to the beauty of the building without denying its history. The west wall retains bars on the windows, which now illuminate the hotel ballroom. In a whimsical nod to the past, a restaurant called Clink has been decorated with repurposed cell bars and doors. And the hotel has become home to a popular nightclub called Alibi, which uses the original slate floor from the jail's former drunk tank. "It was a fine line to walk, figuring out how much of the jail to keep, and how much was too much," Johnson says. "At the end of the day, I think we've struck a very good balance."

After a $150 million restoration, the 298-room Liberty Hotel opened with fanfare in September 2007. For his part, Johnson says that the project has been a wonderful surprise. "I can remember riding the MBTA right by the jail as a student, and I vividly remember looking across the wall and seeing prisoners inside, and I'd always think, 'Thank God I'm not there!'" says Johnson. "Little did I know I'd spend seven years of my life making it the most remarkable hotel in the city." 

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