Completed in 1851, the Charles Street Jail was a collaboration between architect Gridley James Fox Bryant, widely considered Boston’s most accomplished architect of the time, and Rev. Louis Dwight, a prominent Yale-educated penologist whose travels shaped his interest in and advocacy for prison reform.
Thought to be one of the best examples of the “Boston Granite Style” of the mid-19th century, the building “resonated with a strength and dignity appropriate for the era and for Bostonians’ sensibilities,” said historians.
In 1973, after 120 years of housing some of Boston’s most notorious criminals, prisoners revolted because of poor living conditions and the jail was declared unfit and in violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights.
On Memorial Day weekend 1990, the last prisoners were moved to the new Suffolk County Jail.
In 1991, Massachusetts General Hospital acquired the obsolete property and sought proposals for its reuse, requiring that significant elements of the building be preserved.
In 2001, Carpenter & Company was designated the developer of the project, and entered into a lease agreement with MGH for the land and the jail itself.
Bryant had initially drafted a dramatic cupola, designed to bring further light and air into the rotunda. Unfortunately, it was a focal point that, at the time of the building’s construction, was reduced in size to save money. In 1949, it was removed altogether. In one of many restoration decisions, the cupola was painstakingly rebuilt based on Bryant’s original design.
The transformation of the site into a hotel is the work of a team of designers and architects collaborating with historians and conservationists from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Boston Landmarks Commission, the National Park Service and the Boston Redevelopment Authority to ensure that the end result is a careful balance between preservation and dynamic new use.
Drawn to the building’s dramatic spatial qualities, the team tapped Bryant’s original architectural drawings to ensure adherence to his creative vision for the cruciform-shaped building. Owing much of its character to the powerful Romanesque and Renaissance forms used in its design, the building consists of an octagonal central building featuring four circular wood “ocular” windows and four radiating wings, each with large three-story arched windows highlighted by articulated wedge-shaped, stone “voussoirs” characteristic of French design. At the time, the windows were thought to yield light “four times as great as that in any prison yet constructed.”
Apart from this addition, the jail’s granite exterior and expansive, light-filled interiors remain largely unchanged. Soaring 90 feet, the jail’s central atrium was beautifully preserved and forms the core of the hotel. It features the building’s trademark windows and historic catwalks. The preserved jail cells within the hotel restaurant and wrought-iron work on the windows are just two examples of preservation. The jail’s former exercise yard is now a private, beautifully landscaped courtyard that is destined to take its place among the beloved “hidden gardens” of the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
The interior design team was tasked with infusing the hotel with a distinctive personality that honors the building’s rich history while imparting contemporary vibrancy. To that end, in a modern counterpoint to the building’s exterior, the hotel’s stylish reception desk is crafted of ebonized wood with lacquered stenciled patterns reminiscent of 1850’s embroidery work; carpets recall the old-fashioned crewel work of New England, enlarged and contemporized; and American colonial prints in historic colors such as maroon, grey and purple, creating an updated take on a traditional look. Finally, exposed brick walls and a striking wrought iron chandelier add visual interest to the lobby while underscoring a commitment to historic and understated materials.