October 12, 2007

Breaking Out of Jail
Boston jail becomes luxury hotel through transformative reuse

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . transform a landmark urban jail into a luxury hotel?

Summary: Boston's Charles Street Jail, a national historic landmark sited downtown overlooking the Charles River, has been transformed into the luxurious, $110 million Liberty Hotel by Cambridge Seven Associates. The design incorporates historically significant portions of the existing building, including its granite exterior, windows, a 90-foot rotunda, cupola, brick cells, and interior catwalks. In addition to converting the cells into luxury rooms, the design also incorporates a new 16-story tower. The hotel opened on September 5 and, so far, is proving to be a development catalyst within Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

The cruciform, granite-clad Charles Street Jail, complete with octagonal rotunda and 90-foot-tall atrium, began operating in 1851 on Beacon Hill and closed in 1990. The building was a jail (as opposed to a penitentiary) serving to incarcerate people standing for trial for short periods. Working with preservation architect Ann Beha Associates, and developer Carpenter & Company, Cambridge Seven Associates converted the jail into a luxury hotel of 18 brick-wall rooms, while adding a 6,000 square-foot tower of 298 rooms. The restoration was a five-year project and cost $110 million.

“I call it transformative reuse rather than adaptive reuse,” says principal-in-charge Gary Johnson, AIA, at Cambridge Seven Associates. “The project didn’t just turn this building into a different use—we’ve transformed a section of Boston. The building was derelict and walled off, but is now the center of a transformed neighborhood. The city has done street improvements and built a new transportation center, and the hospital built a new fronting onto the restored jail. This project has been the best kind of reuse catalyst, bringing 24/7 life and a whole new kind of energy into the neighborhood.”

An unusual hospitality experience
The architects won the commission by responding to an RFP from Massachusetts General Hospital, owner of the jail site in Beacon Hill. “The building was dusty, full of junk, pigeons were flying everywhere, the roof had holes in it, and the cells had paint peeling and graffiti,” recalls Johnson. “At the same time, we realized this was a magnificent structure. It was ahead of its time in 1851—with natural ventilation, an octagonal rotunda, catwalks, and lighting for every cell. We saw the bones of the building and thought it could be an unusual hospitality experience. The planning and approval process was based on the concept that its history would read as a jail with contemporary elements. We wanted to make it clear it would be a place of hospitality, welcoming, and happiness, rather than the opposite.”

Johnson took the same approach with the new tower. “We would use materials of today, not from yesteryear. The tower would celebrate the difference between old and new.” Johnson set out to make the public spaces inside the jail the focus of the hotel experience but first had to present designs to community groups and regulatory agencies that included the Boston Landmarks Commission, Massachusettes Historical Commission, the National Parks Service, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. “We wanted to make sure people saw that we didn’t have a predetermined solution.”

The next step was to clean out the old jail. “After we got the junk out of it, we took some of the roofs off so we could access the building with hoists,” explains Johnson. “Because some of the roofs were more original to the building than others, we chose the newer ones to take off. We took the cell blocks out floor-by-floor and piece-by-piece. They were three-foot brick walls, with eight-foot-long stone slabs. We did foundation work and installed new floors.”

Johnson says the jail was built in the marsh lands of the Charles River. “The jail was built on Boston’s blue clay, notorious for bad foundations. They built it on 85-foot-long oak piles. When we explored the piles, the tops of them looked like they were freshly sawed. Once you cleaned them off, they were as pure as if you cut a tree today. And with all the waterfront and construction changes, the building didn’t have but one crack in it.”

Transforming a jail
Johnson describes the granite’s condition as filthy. “Our preservation architect, Ana Beha Associates, created a solution that was basically soap and water. The granite went from black to silvery gray.” The fourth wing, retained by the hospital, was taken down, block-by block, to build a 500,000 square-foot ambulatory care building. Then, the wing was rebuilt, block-by-block, to match the way the building had been. Johnson wanted to keep the other three wings intact—as much as possible. “We determined the wood windows, which were large, triple-hung windows at 10X40 feet, were shot, so we replicated them with aluminum for the hospital. We used the same window design for the Liberty. From outside it looks like one building, but inside there are two tenants. The windows are all new, with the exception of the four oculus windows that surround rotunda just under the roof.”

A new cupola is a reproduction of one envisioned when the jail was first designed. Surrounding the rotunda are four chimneys, one per side, and granite chimneys on the north and south wings that are actually part of the ventilation systems for the cells.

“The big problem was inside,” explains Johnson. “The building is 100 percent solid masonry with no air space. To put new finishes on the walls and still control the moisture, we put a gap in the air space so water vapor can be mechanically wicked. For the rotunda, which is exposed brick, we decided to leave the brick as the finish material. It had about six coats of paint on it. We decided to take the paint off because the water migration through the brick completely destroyed the paint. To control moisture from getting on the brick in the rotunda, we cleaned the original wooden trusses, removed shabby steel supports and a plaster ceiling from 1949 when the original cupola was taken down, and added new steel supports sympathetic to the original wooden trusses.”

Four levels of catwalks with metal stairs surround the inside of the rotunda. “Each catwalk had octagonal, cast-iron railings supported by cast-iron columns. We dismantled and reinstalled them on top of a glass system, so there is glass railing around the rotunda on new catwalks, which are the hotel corridors and connect the rooms and meeting rooms. We recreated the cast-iron columns, and the old railings are applied as an artifact.”

Each guest room combines 8-foot x10-foot cells made of brick walls, stone floors, stone ceilings, and two-foot-wide doors and windows. “We left the bars on the windows in the ballroom and some of the meeting rooms,” notes Johnson. “For the rooms, we cut the bars off but ground them down smooth with the brick. You can see clearly where the bars were.”

An 18-foot-tall brick wall that once surrounded the jail’s courtyard was torn down and replaced by a 2.5-foot granite wall. A secret vegetable garden was created between the old jail and new tower. Johnson retained a doorway, padlock, and its granite surrounds that once went into a quarantine area. The hotel features a 2,000-square-foot presidential suite with views, a restaurant called Clink, a bar called Alibi, and another restaurant that will open in January called Scumpo, which means “escape” in Italian. “The developers are playing a fun game,” says Johnson. “It’s a jail, but—wink, wink—it’s fun, hip, a great location, and a great place to spend the night. It’s the first time you can leave the building on your own free will.”


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