Arresting Development

How the Charles Street Jail—Chuckie’s Place, to those who did time there—got pressed into service as Boston’s newest luxury hotel.


When Charles Hotel managing director Richard Friedman undertook reinventing the 1851 Charles Street Jail, he knew he was in for a challenge. “I’m a glutton for tough projects,” he says. “At the end of the day, you really have something special—but you never know how difficult it will be.” Because the building is a National Historic Landmark, for instance, he would need two architecture firms: Cambridge Seven Associates for the hotel, and Boston’s Ann Beha Architects to consult on the historical renovation. Seven years, $110 million, and three postponed openings later, the 298-room Liberty Hotel is finally up and running.

1. Cambridge Seven architect Gary Johnson, who first worked with Friedman on the Charles Hotel, recognized it would have been aesthetically ill-advised (and impossibly expensive) to try to re-create the jail’s granite architecture in the adjacent hotel building, an ultramodern 16-story tower. He chose brick and glass instead, yielding a building that bridges the gap between the institutional architecture of the nearby hospital area and the brick townhouses of Beacon Hill.

2. Like many of Boston’s buildings, the Liberty essentially floats on marshland. In this case, support comes from 50-foot-long logs sunk every 5 feet in the clay and capped with stacks of granite blocks. When the developers disassembled one wing of the jail to make room for the new hotel tower, they salvaged what they could, and that granite is now making its way into other projects around New England.

3. Most of the walls at the jail, which was originally designed by architect Gridley J. F. Bryant (known for his work on old City Hall), are brick core, about 2 feet wide, clad in 6-inch-thick granite panels. Workers spent three weeks sandblasting some 20 coats of paint from the interior brick, and another month scrubbing the exterior by hand.


4. The central rotunda—measuring 70 feet across and 90 feet high at its peak—was formerly the inmates’ dining hall. A drop ceiling, supported by joists installed into the brick, was added in the 1940s to reduce heating costs in the midst of an oil shortage. One of the project’s first tasks was to remove the ceiling, along with several tons of pigeon droppings, to reveal the original wooden roof.

5. Four handcrafted oculi, or round windows, were assembled in place during the five years it took to build the jail, starting in 1846. Since each came in at 10 feet wide and hundreds of pounds, the Liberty’s crews were happy to leave them right where they were. Restorers stripped their old paint, reglazed them, and saved most of the glass—all while working 70 feet in the air.

6. Cambridge Seven, together with interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud, commissioned four custom-made wrought-iron and blown-glass chandeliers to provide a focal point for the lobby. Ten feet wide and 25 feet long apiece, they help make the five-story-high rotunda feel human-scale without taking away any of the space’s grandeur.

7. The building’s old bones remain visible in elements like the restored sections of the jail’s cast-iron catwalks and some of the cell bars (“Two of our hotel bars have bars,” Friedman notes). But everything else is updated and luxurious: 24-hour room service, imported linens, VoIP telephones, HD-LCD televisions, and WiFi. Adding in two restaurants, a ballroom big enough to accommodate dinner for 225, and unparalleled views of the Charles and Beacon Hill results in a hotel that pays its respects to history, without being a prisoner to it.

215 Charles St., Boston, 617-224-4000, libertyhotel.com.

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