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New hotel revels in jailhouse past

With the Clink restaurant and Alibi bar, the Liberty is guilty of lacking subtlety

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2007

"Just make it jail-like."

Architect Gary Johnson of the firm Cambridge Seven Associates says that was the word from the National Park Service, spoken when he took over the job of converting the old Charles Street Jail in Boston's West End into today's Liberty Hotel.

The jail was built in 1851. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, which is why the Park Service held jurisdiction over it. Designed by one of Boston's major architects, the delightfully named Gridley J. Fox Bryant, it's a magnificent pile of rough granite, with four wings rising to a central tower.

The new Liberty Hotel in the old Charles Street Jail is new wine in an old bottle. That's a kind of architecture I love. No matter how hard an architect tries, new and old never quite fit perfectly. You always end up with a slightly square peg (the new use) in a slightly round hole (the old building). That's the special charm of this kind of architecture. Call it Misfit Architecture.

Think of the condo loft in a former textile warehouse, the restaurant in what once was a church, the coffee bar that occupies a one-time fire station. If they're done right, they can be wonderful. The new doesn't wipe out the old. New and old bump against each other with some friction, some odd conjunctions, some architectural ironies. You're more sharply aware of both eras. They're foils for each other.

I wish I could say the Liberty Hotel is a triumph of Misfit. It certainly tries, but it's a little too obvious. When you name your restaurant Clink and your bar Alibi, you're shoving people's noses in the old/new paradox, instead of letting them notice it for themselves. You're about as subtle as Disney.

Some things do work well. The restoration of the exterior, done by Cambridge Seven in collaboration with Pamela Hawkes of Ann Beha Associates, is splendid. The grim, dark jail, abandoned for years, is now a handsome emblem of what historians call the Boston Granite Style, a mid-19th-century era of massive buildings made of stone cut from the great quarry in Quincy.

And indoors, too, there are subtle touches. These are the ghosts, the half-perceived evidence of the old cells, which you can make out as puzzling patterns on the floor or the walls. There are teasing traces of old brick and metal, handsome exposed wood truss work that holds up the dome, a few remaining cell bars. If they'd only stopped there and kept some mystery. Kevin Lynch, the great urbanist at MIT, got it right when he said we shouldn't drag the past into the bright light of today, but instead should perceive it half-seen beneath the present, "like a fish in dark water."

Most of the Liberty's public spaces are anything but subtle. Too often they yell at you that you're, hey, in what used to be a jail. Restaurant tables cuddle up to bricks and bars. Interiors are blatant and often hideous. (Interior furnishings and finishes were designed by Champalimaud & Associates, of New York.) Knock-your-eye-out, boldly patterned murals, carpets, and furnishings leap at you from otherwise gloomy surfaces. Huge murals of silhouetted trees are supposed to make you think of freedom outdoors. A floor mosaic by artist Coral Bourgeois might seem delightful somewhere else, but because it consists entirely of cartoony icons of prison life, it strikes you as yet another in-your-face commercial for the jailness of the Liberty.

Well, sure, the Park Service said it wanted it jail-like, right? But the Liberty is like a jail the way Epcot Center in Florida is like Europe. It's themed. It's theater.

OK, there are a couple of nice touches. In the Alibi Room are reproductions of actual mug shots of celebs like Steve McQueen, Mick Jagger, and Hugh Grant, images made by the cops who arrested these guys for various malfeasances. The designers have inscribed amusing phony alibis under the mugs. And at Clink, you can order a Buzzy's Sandwich. True Bostonians will recognize the homage to the unforgettable Buzzy's Fabulous Road Beef stand, which once occupied a corner of the site.

The former jail houses the hotel's major public spaces. Behind it, there's a quietly pleasant 16-story tower of hotel rooms, also designed by Cambridge Seven, with some marvelous views over the city. Still to come in the jail, around the end of the year, is a restaurant by the noted Lydia Shire.

One last gripe. You don't want to walk or drive into, or out of, the hotel site if you can help it. The forecourt is a sea of asphalt filled with cars, organized - or disorganized - in a way that succeeded in hopelessly confusing this driver.

Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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