19th-Century Jail Becomes 21st-Century Hotel

March 3, 2009

Going directly to jail doesn’t sound like a treat – unless you’re headed for Boston’s former Charles Street Jail. These days, the 1851-vintage building enjoys a new life as the four-star Liberty Hotel.

The facility’s public spaces and guestrooms are housed in the historic former jail, and a new, 16-story Ironspot brick and glass tower contains an additional 280 rooms. Embracing the building’s history, keeping elements of the jail visible, and changing the mood from forbidding to inviting were important project considerations. “We had to transform the space from a 19th-century jail to a 21st-century hotel – from a sorrowful building to a joyful one,” says Gary Johnson, principal, Cambridge Seven Associates, Cambridge, MA.

The adaptive reuse of the building offered the opportunity of a lifetime, but one that came with a host of challenges. Conceiving the lighting and control systems for the jail and the new tower was “like designing systems for two different projects on a very tight urban site,” according to Jim Puopolo, senior construction administrator, Cambridge Seven Associates.

With its granite exterior and exposed brick interior, the former jail is “an uninsulated building, but it’s very warm and comfortable now,” Puopolo says. Since all of the old systems had been removed, he describes the project as “refitting, not retrofitting.” The boiler is in the bottom of the old structure, while the cooler and heat exchange air-circulating system are on top of the new tower. “They’re 16 floors apart,” Puopolo says. “It was difficult to manage, but it made sense to minimize the space and size of the mechanical rooms.”

The central rotunda, with its ceiling vaulting to 90 feet, now houses the hotel’s expansive lobby. To add human scale, four murals of the Tree of Life, inspired by Boston’s Liberty Tree, extend up through the rotunda, drawing the eye upward and uniting the ground-floor entry area with the upper lobby. The fabric murals serve another purpose, too: Acoustic panels and ductwork needed for heating and cooling are hidden behind them, maintaining the lobby’s temperature from the perimeter.

Four wrought-iron chandeliers, designed by Alexandra Champalimaud and Associates of New York, mimic the shape of the rotunda’s oculus windows. Principal Designer Alexandra Champalimaud went to the site the day the chandeliers were hung to gauge the correct height to bring the rotunda down to ensure that it wouldn’t feel like a cavernous space.

Winches were installed on the reinforced original trusses so the tall chandeliers can be lowered for service. “We did that rather than having to move a lift into the atrium and boost someone almost 50 feet in the air,” says Architectural Lighting Designer David Ghatan, CM Kling & Associates, Alexandria, VA. The lighting has a transformative effect on the imposing granite building. From the outside, “you can see the chandeliers and the warm lighting through the tall windows, making it a very inviting space,” Ghatan says. “It takes the hulking, intimidating building to hospitality level, and adds comfort.”

Most of the lighting in the hotel is provided by low-voltage halogen MR16s. “It minimizes the maintenance to use the same thing throughout,” Ghatan says. “This way, they only have one lightbulb to stock. And, using one bulb gives continuous color temperature throughout.”

Colored theatrical lighting is used in the rotunda to create moods. Because a lot of natural light comes into the space, “we tweak the lighting throughout the day [by] using dimmers. It’s a fun thing to do, plus it extends the life of the bulbs,” Ghatan says. He enjoyed working in the historical space, which he became familiar with while growing up just a few miles away. “I saw it often and knew its history. It was great to be in there and see it. It’s a huge volume, and it’s very exciting to work with the bones. You don’t usually get that on a project.”

There’s an almost theatrical impact to entering the lobby on an escalator from the street-level entrance. “Ascending into a great expansive space flooded with light” is intended to be “an uplifting experience,” according to Project Manager Winston Kong, a senior associate at Alexandra Champalimaud and Associates. Special lighting brings attention to a ceramic tile mural by Coral Bourgeois, which separates the escalators. The tiles depict jail themes, including caricatures, stick figures, fingerprints, and even a rendering of a Champalimaud family friend.

When the project was well under way, the hotel operator opted to switch from the originally planned separate network for television, phone, and Internet services to a converged network. “It was hard to do partway through construction, but it was absolutely a benefit,” Puopolo says. “It worked well – better than what was specified. Now, the employees all use earpieces to communicate through the wireless network, [and] it helps them provide better service.” The converged network also has the infrastructure to tie in smart elements that can be added in the future to save additional energy.

Because the Charles Street Jail was on the National Register of Historic Places, the team on the $150 million project worked closely with a bevy of agencies, including the National Parks Service. Maintaining “jail-ness,” a term coined by the Parks Service during the project, was a priority that led to preserving some original cells, the exterior windows, exposed brick walls, iron catwalks, and even some barred windows. Other issues included how many lights could be used, and where they could be located. Because of the Parks Service, “some of the sconces were restored and brought up to code. I hope we gave them another 100 years of life,” Ghatan says.

Johnson says he anticipates an increase in creative-reuse and adaptive-reuse projects, although it’s a more costly approach than starting from scratch. “People are beginning to value historic buildings,” he says. The current interest in the greening of America, and the LEED-certification points offered for urban site reuse, could fuel a repurposing trend.

Elzy Kolb is a White Plains, NY-based freelance writer, editor, and copy editor. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Westchester Magazine, Interior Design magazine, TheStreet.com, and many other print and Web publications.

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