The 1851 Charles St. jail was transformed
into the award-winning, Liberty Hotel

At a time when going green has captured the hearts and minds of the public, Boston’s  Liberty Hotel is the penultimate example of historical preservation with modern style and casual elegance.

In fact, its spacious lobby with the 90 ft. atrium, and windows overlooking posh Beacon Hill, downtown Boston, and the Charles River belie the fact that this architecturally beautiful granite edifice began in 1851 as the Charles Street jail.

How, I wondered could a place that had held killers, con men, drunks, and suffragettes be transformed into an award-winning, luxury property?

The lobby where catwalks
have become beautiful balconies.

The challenge was obvious. However, from the moment I arrived, a smiling doorman opened the cab door and greeted me by name, leaving me both pleasantly surprised and impressed. Up the escalator I rode, admiring a patchwork of words and images created by artist Coral Bourgeois. Her 19 ft. mural is subtle. Unless one really looks, fingerprints, handcuffs, international symbols, clocks, words, and mug shots of criminals are muted by her use of color, texture, and angles. Besides, one cannot help but look up towards the breathtaking lobby rotunda with the 90 ft. atrium.

Anticipating my early arrival, concierge Patrick Bonville greeted me at the reservation desk. Having taken a red eye I knew my room would not be available for several hours, so he graciously offered to store my luggage while I went off to explore and have breakfast at Clink, the hotel restaurant that’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Inside CLINK with original
bricks and irons bars.

“You’ll need your room key for the elevator,” he explained. “It doesn’t work without it.” Yes, their security system is state-of-the-art. The elevator will not stop on your floor unless you insert your room key which gives one an added sense of security.

After a pot of Earl Grey tea, apple-smoked bacon and scrambled eggs at Clink my room on the 14th floor of the new tower was ready. The bellman opened the door and I found myself mesmerized by the sweeping views of Beacon Hill, downtown Boston, the Charles River, the “T” tunnel, and in the distance, the famous CITGO sign next to Fenway Park. Floor to ceiling windows made the approximately 400 sq. ft. room seem much larger, and a bottle of Old Vin Zin Steele 2006 wine from the Pacini Vineyard in Mendocino County along with a bowl of fresh fruit made me feel especially welcome.

A guest room in the new 16-story tower.

A luxury bathroom suite.

Above the desk that houses the mini-bar and in-room safe is a 32-inch flat panel HD-LCD television. Two VIOP (voice over IP) telephones are available for everything from ordering 24-hour room service, to checking a flight, or arranging a wake-up call. Each room is a hub for connecting MP3, DVD, CD or a laptop computer to the television screen for work or entertainment. The king bed is appointed with luxurious imported linens, and as I later discovered, it was as comfortable as it looked.

Inside the closet and the bathroom luxurious terrycloth bathrobes hang above packaged slippers. An ironing board and iron, a shoe horn, and a bag for 24-hour laundry and dry cleaning service hangs next to wooden hangers.. I opened my laptop, found the Boston server, and voila! Everything I needed was at my fingertips.

The architects, Cambridge Seven Associates did a phenomenal job of maximizing space. The bathroom features a beautiful grey granite shower opposite a white bathtub. Fresh magenta orchids on the sink and the tub add a nice touch of color. The four-fixture light casts a warm glow, while the magnifying mirror is the best I’ve used. The biggest, most pleasant surprise was hot water-on-demand, a feature that provides instant gratification while conserving water. Molton Brown products known for being both humane and environmentally friendly add a citrus aroma of green lime, mandarin and ginger. Seeing complimentary Molton Brown products is a welcome touch..

The fabulous view of downtown Boston and the Charles River.

Room service anyone?

I turned on the TV and watched a fascinating Liberty Hotel documentary that detailed its startling transformation from the Charles Street jail to luxury, award-winning hotel. It seems that the original architect, Gridley James Fox Bryant designed the Charles Street jail in the shape of a cruciform The catwalks that frame the walls were designed so that the guards could watch prisoners segregated by sex and category of offense within the 220 granite 8 ft. by 10 ft. cells.

Reverend Louis Dwight was responsible for influencing Bryant to design a space that delivered light and had good ventilation - hence 30 arched windows, each 33 ft. tall.  Rev. Dwight believed that by treating prisoners with respect they would be easier to rehabilitate. Upon completion in 1851, the Charles Street jail became an international model of prison architecture.

The cupola is created to the
original architects specifications.

One key distinction between a jail and a prison is that one is held in jail while awaiting trial. Jail is short term, prison is long term. The problem was that over the years the Charles Street jail fell into disrepair, overcrowding caused prison riots, and ultimately, in 1990 the jail was closed. It sat empty until Massachusetts General Hospital acquired it, but it wasn’t until 2001 when developer Richard L. Friedman of Carpenter & Company stepped forward to negotiate a deal to turn the national historic landmark into a AAA Four Diamond award winning hotel that the transformation began.

Friedman’s passion and vision led him to the architects at Cambridge Seven Associates, and working within a restricted framework they were able to preserve the essence of the jail while infusing the hotel with a comfortable, modern, cutting edge feeling. It took five years and cost $150 million dollars to painstakingly remove, clean, and reassemble thousands of peeling, paint-covered red bricks, as well as to restore the exterior Quincy granite to its original grandeur. To rid the property of bad vibes – and I’m sure there were many – Richard Friedman brought in a group of Buddhist monks who did a superb job of cleansing the premises. 

The beautiful grand bathroom.

Marketing and PR manager Katie Archambault gave me a guided tour of the Liberty Hotel, pointing out preservation details such as the original iron handrails behind the new glass handrails, the cupola built to Bryant’s1851 specifications, and the small museum/historical area that ties the past to the present.

One of 18 sumptuous rooms
created from the original jail.

Eighteen rooms have been created from the original jail cells while the new tower has 280 rooms that include a number of fabulous suites. There is a 24 hour gym, meeting rooms, and a beautiful ballroom. Since opening in September 2007 suites ranging in size from 550 sq. ft. to 2200 sq. ft. have been home-away-from-home to diplomats, royalty, and celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson, Mick Jagger and Bruce Willis. The hotel’s close proximity to Logan Airport, and  Massachusetts General Hospital makes it especially convenient for patients and their families.

The original Quincy granite
Charles Street jail sign.

The staff, Katie explained is dedicated to making every guest’s stay memorable, not once, but every time he or she visits.

“If the customer drinks Heineken, the next time he visits, the mini-bar will be filled with Heineken.”

She noted that guest details are customized — if one sleeps on the right side of the bed the evening maid will turn down the right side.

After she mentioned that, I thought a moment, then realized that I had taken that subtle level of personal service for granted. I have to admit, the service I received, as well as what I observed, was seamless.

On the Friday night of my visit I returned to the hotel after attending a cocktail reception at MIT. The lobby was a hub of activity.

Drinks at Alibi.

In fact, it felt more like Manhattan’s hip Hudson Hotel. Boston’s hot young men and women were enjoying drinks from the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar, and from Clink’s lobby bar and restaurant. Downstairs at Alibi, once a drunk tank, it was now the club with a line 35 deep. Scampo, named “Best New Restaurants 2008” by Esquire magazine was packed with visitors and locals that included a number of Boston’s finest athletes. (Read more about Scampo in Jetsetters Magazine at this link.)

Each of the catwalk/balconies was alive with a social event. Looking up, around or down there was positive action. Recession? What Recession? There was no sign of it as I sat down at Clink and perused the menu. There were snacks that included local oysters, classic beef tartare, edamame with sea salt, cheeses from Colorado, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and charcuterie favorites such as foie gras, and pork rillettes. I bypassed the pasta and aged sirloin, seared sea scallops, and butter poached Maine lobster. I ordered the Tuna Tartare with Citrus, jalapeno, and fried yucca chips ($12). It was exactly what I wanted before heading upstairs.

CLINK - the lobby restaurant
serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The following morning I couldn’t find my new leather gloves, and considering the cold weather, I needed them. Finally, as a last resort I stopped at Clink and asked if any had been turned in from the previous night. Indeed, there they were! I was amazed, and relieved. I had paid my check with cash so my server would have had no way of knowing if I was staying at the hotel or just popping in for a late night bite. This certainly proved that Katie Archambault’s policy of service was genuine, and followed by the entire staff.

Shrimp and avocado appetizer.

The Liberty Hotel has won so many awards since it opened in 2007 that suffice it to say, I will mention a few of them: Hot List: 2008 Conde Nast Traveler, “Sexiest Hotels in America 2008”, Forbes, “Best Hotel Bars: La Grande Dame bar at Liberty Hoterl,”, Scampo: “Best New Restaurants 2008” Esquire Magazine, the Victorian Society of America Preservation Award, a Boston Preservation Alliance award, the 30th Annual Massachusetts Preservation Society Award: Charles Street Jail/The Liberty Hotel “Adaptive Reuse” award, and the “2008 Modernization Awards: Grand Prize: The Liberty Hotel”, Buildings Magazine.

The magnificant results of a 5 year
$150 million dollar preservation project.

For those who love architecture and history the Liberty Hotel is a must see! For travelers seeking a unique, comfortable, even luxurious experience, the Liberty Hotel is an excellent and memorable choice.


The former drunk tank — bricks and bars and Warhol inspired portraits of famous people who’ve had their moments on the wrong side of the camera — Frank Sinatra, Lindsey Lohan, and Jim Morrison are among the famous faces with captions that remind us that to err is human, to be a superstar, divine. Alibi is intimate and dimly lit with a fascinating history. It’s definitely one of the hottest clubs in Boston.

For reservations call toll free: 866-507-5245  or in Boston call 617-224-4000. The fax is: 617-399-4259

For more information log onto: The Liberty Hotel is located at 215 Charles St. at the foot of Beacon Hill.

— Feature by Linda Lane, Jetsetters Magazine Las Vegas Travel and Entertainment Editor; photos by the author and courtesy of The Liberty Hotel.