Boston, Mass - Be captivated, invites the Liberty Hotel. It's a rather blatant use of irony considering the building used to be the notorious Charles Street Jail.
I was skeptical when I heard about this project. At best, I thought, it's gimicky. But I also feared it would be downright tasteless, mocking the prisoners who spent years enduring inhumane conditions in the old Suffolk County prison.
But the end result, I have to admit, is pretty classy. Most importantly, the Liberty Hotel has turned this graceful, granite building into a productive and - frankly - spectacular space, retaining much of the original architectural detailing. The catwalks still circle the five-storey lobby, its original rose windows flooding the place with light. The hotel has also preserved the history of this building, with a gallery of historic gallery in the lobby and plenty of whimsical nods to its former incarnation.But the hotel does not gloss over the building's rocky history.When the jail was first built in 1851, the architect collaborated with prison reformer Louis Dwight. Together they designed the facility, experimenting with principles of humanitarian incarceration that were en vogue at the time. The building is considered an archetype of the Boston Granite Style (with granite straight from Quincy, Mass).Over the years, the jail housed many famous residents, including the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, black liberationist Malcolm X and Boston's own James Michael Curley (Indeed, this is where the would-be mayor lived when he was elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1904).
Despite its auspicious start, the Charles Street Jail suffered from a lack of funding and therefore a lack of maintenance. By the middle of the 20th century, the building was severely overcrowded, conditions were miserable and there was a constant threat of revolt. On one occasion, two men found bugs in their soup and incited an uprising which would cause $250,000 in damage. I learned all this from the documentary video in the hotel gallery.
Finally, a group of inmates brought a lawsuit against the county. Judge Arthur Garrity actually spent a night in the prison - on murderers' row - before making his decision. In 1974, he ruled that the inhumane conditions were unacceptable and the prison should be closed immediately.
His ruling was finally carried out 16 years later. This is Boston, after all. And any job worth doing, is worth doing over budget and past deadline.
By comparison, turning the low-down prison into a high-class hotel took only five years (and $150 million). Of the many tasks, one was inviting a group of monks to burn some incense, say some prayers and cleanse the property of any negative karma that might be lurking in the corners. No way were they starting a $150 million endeavor with bad Feng Shui.
Who would have thought that the notorious Charles Street Jail would get a second life as a five-star luxury hotel? These days it houses much more willing residents, no doubt. (Oh, they are willing… willing to pay $300-plus per night!)