Liberty Hotel (formerly Charles Street Jail)
The Charles Street Jail (also known as the Suffolk County Jail) was originally constructed from 1848-1851. The first inmates arrived in 1851 and the last inmates left in 1990 to be relocated to the new Nashua Street Jail. During its 140-year span, the jail housed several notorious inmates, such as Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. After the jail was closed, the building was purchased by the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). MGH sought an alternative use for the property that would retain the charm of the historic building. Several years and $150 million later, the upscale Liberty Hotel was opened on the site. The building itself was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Backstory and Context
The Liberty Hotel Boston sits at a busy point on Charles Street where Storrow Drive, Cambridge Street, and the Longfellow Bridge meet. It was originally constructed as the Charles Street Jail (also known as the Suffolk County Jail) from 1848-1851. The enormous building was designed by architect Gridley James Fox Bryant. Bryant worked with noted prison reformer Reverend Louis Dwight. Together, they created a structure to house prisoners in Suffolk County which was based on the Auburn Plan. The Auburn Plan was named for a style of incarceration developed in Auburn, NY, where prisoners were allowed to work together during the day and were only forced into solitary confinement at night (as opposed to total solitary confinement, which was the favored penal method of the day). Although they could work side-by-side, total silence was enforced as a method of teaching self-discipline.
Many notorious criminals spent time inside these walls from the time the prison was first opened in 1851 until it was finally closed in 1990. Ferdinando “Nicola” Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were imprisoned here in the 1920s for robbery and murder before being executed by electric chair in August 1927. The famous anarchists were convicted of killing a paymaster and his guard at Slater and Morrill (a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts), who were bringing two boxes of money totaling $15,776.51 from the office building to the nearby factory. Their trial in 1921 garnered international attention.
James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious crime boss of the Winter Hill Gang, spent time at the Charles Street Jail as a young man. Malcolm X also served time in the jail at one point in his life. James Michael Curley, a former Mayor of Boston as well as a Congressman and Governor of the Commonwealth, was held behind its walls while he was serving as a Boston Alderman. He was jailed for taking the civil service exam for a friend. It is interesting that Curley also served time in a Federal Penitentiary while he was in the final six months of his last term as Mayor (for mail fraud).
In 1973, the building was condemned. The courts determined that the conditions in the old prison were inhumane. The county started making plans for a new jailhouse on Nashua Street. By 1990, construction had been completed and the last inmate moved to the current facility.
The Massachusetts General Hospital soon purchased the old prison and looked for possible uses for the property. MGH hired the development firm of Carpenter and Company in 1991 to manage the project. They worked with the local historical commissions to make sure that whatever they did with the property, that it upheld the integrity and design of the original structure while moving forward with a vibrant, modern idea. They even went so far as to re-build the impressive cupola shown in Bryant’s original plan. The original cupola had been scaled back to save money and was ultimately removed from the building altogether in 1949.
Two architectural firms, Cambridge Seven Associates and Ann Beha Architects, assisted in the design of the Liberty Hotel’s 300-room plan. They commenced a $150 million restoration project to transform the facility into a modern luxury hotel with upscale restaurants with jail-inspired names like Clink and Alibi. The hotel opened to the public in the summer of 2007.
Kaplan, Aline. The Charles Street Jail and the Liberty Hotel. The Next Phase Blog. January 20, 2017. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://aknextphase.com/charles-street-jail-liberty-hotel/.
Burnett, Paul. The Sacco & Vanzetti Trial: Key Figures. Accessed February 21, 2017. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/SaccoV/biographies.html.
Frankfurter, Felix. The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti. The Atlantic. March 01, 1927. Accessed February 21, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1927/03/the-case-of-sacco-and-vanzetti/306625/.
James Michael Curley Park. Celebrate Boston. Accessed February 23, 2017. http://www.celebrateboston.com/sites/james-michael-curley-park.htm.