From Captivity to Liberty

Published: 01st September 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st September 2014 12:38 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: Designed by architect Gridley James Fox Bryant in 1851, the Charles Street Jail in Boston was one of the best examples of the Boston Granite School of architecture. Prison reformer Rev Louis Dwight collaborated on this project with the architect, and the result was an international model for prison architecture of the second half of the 19th century. Individually listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, Charles Street Jail was designed in a cruciform shape, with a 90-foot tall central rotunda and four extending wings of jail cells. This jail had rooms large enough for inmates to work together. It had individual cells as well. The jail had 220 8’ x 10’ cells that could house only one inmate at a time. The four wings allowed segregation of inmates based on categories of crime, sex and jail term. The building had 30 33-foot high circular windows to bring in ample light, which at the time was four times more than any other jail built in those days. Its location on the Charles River added to the quality of light and air coming into the building.  However, after 120 years of locking up Boston’s most notorious criminals, the jail was declared unfit, overcrowded and inhuman by the US District Court and abandoned in 1973. It lay abandoned until 2001, before proposals were sought from its new owners, Massachusetts General Hospital, for its historic preservation for adaptive reuse.

Through restoration for adaptive reuse, the abandoned Charles Street Jail has now been transformed into a four star luxury hotel, appropriately called The Liberty Hotel, reborn as a vital commercial development featuring 298 luxury guest rooms meeting high end hospitality industry standards. It took developer Carpenter 7 Company and architects Cambridge Seven Associates five years and $150 million to transform this historic piece into a top of the line luxury heritage hotel.

In 2007, for the first time in 150 years, this iconic structure was opened to the general public. The historic Romanesque and Renaissance elements have been sensitively preserved without putting its dark past under the spotlight. Arriving guests ascend one level to the floor of the central rotunda which is lit by its huge circular windows and the cupola above. This soaring 90-foot atrium ringed by upper level balconies connecting guest rooms, conference areas, restaurants, the bar and the ballroom is the heart of the hotel. The interior features exposed brick walls. The original cells remain in several locations.

Patrons may enter the hotel’s gourmet restaurant via a separate doorway, one through which prisoners were once transferred from paddy wagons to their cells. A cafe offers views of the central rotunda and a chance to sit among the former cell walls. The ironwork, brick walls, even the lock and key and cell numbers have been preserved to allow guests to learn about the history of the building. The hotel’s bar is built in the jail’s former drunk tank!

Even some of the ex-inmates are stunned by the transformation that this historic jail has gone through. Once a place where guards watched prisoners, today the rotunda is a place to ‘see and be seen’. Once a place where prisoners were waiting to get out, now people are waiting to get in and enjoy the building’s new charming interiors wrapped in its rich history.

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