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Hotel Notorious

Boston's 156-year-old Charles Street Jail closed in 1990. Now, after a massive renovation and expansion, the gothic compound has been turned into a luxury hotel.

December 01, 2007 |
The new 16-story tower is visible behind the 19th-century jail. The large cupola atop the historic building is a reproduction of the original. PHOTO: KWESI ARTHUR

hat do Albert “The Boston Strangler” DeSalvo, Malcolm X, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mick Jagger and Annette Bening have in common?

They've all done time at Boston's Charles Street Jail.

At least the rock star and the Oscar-nominated actress had the good sense to wait until a $150 million renovation transformed the gothic 19th-century compound into the posh Liberty Hotel, a 298-room complex overlooking the Charles River.

The rotunda, which serves as the main lobby, has original brick walls, catwalks, and other elements reminiscent of its penal past. The "Alibi" bar, located in the jail's former drunk tank, connects to this space. PHOTO: KWESI ARTHUR

Built in 1851 and decommissioned in 1990, the jail endured 139 years of hard time. “When we first saw the building, it was a deteriorating hulk. It had gorgeous bones but was in very bad shape,” says architect Gary Johnson, principal at Cambridge Seven Associates in Cambridge, Mass.

While the jail's granite exterior walls proved sound, the interior was a decaying and toxic mess (from overwhelming amounts of guano) that had to be gutted and rebuilt. Saved was the massive rotunda, with its 90-foot-high ceiling of fir-hem trusses, at the center of the building's original cruciform footprint. The rotunda is now the apex of activity within the hotel, and many of its original penitential details, including railings, catwalks, and cell doors, were restored. “We wanted to keep a certain amount of jailness,” says Johnson.

Fitting a modern hotel into a historic structure takes finesse, and even though the Building Team had 76,000 sf to work with, space was tight. The solution: add a 16-story, 174,000-sf, 280-room tower behind the old jail with a contemporary aesthetic that complements the historic structure. Guests hoping for jail time can book one of 18 rooms located in the original inmate housing wings.

The 28 months of construction were hampered by physical constraints. “Not only were we were working on a very tight urban site, but within a 35-yard radius of the project there were two hospitals and one other major construction site,” says Jeff Gouveia, EVP and general manager at Suffolk Construction, the general contractor.

The jail's 18-foot-high security walls were razed, and now, for the first time in 156 years, the Charles Street Jail is part of Boston's urban fabric, encouraging people to come and—more to the point—go as they please.

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