Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Charles Street Jail, Boston

The Charles Street Jail once incarcerated Malcolm X and Sacco & Vanzetti is now available as a swanky hotel named "the Liberty Hotel." "Jail" and "Liberty" sound like oxymoron or some kind of slang that I don't know, but I guess that's how the marketing strategies work.

This 1851 Quincy granite clad jail is located on the edge of the working class West End*, just separated by Cambridge Street from posh Beacon Hill. Even so, the proximity of the jail and the wealthy neighborhood is something unheard of in modern day America.

*West End is traditionally an immigrant, African American, and port-industry neighborhood being razed during the urban renewal.

Enough of spontaneous advertisement. I am generally cautious about converting a historic institution into a for-profit establishment, but I have to agree they've done a good job. The octagonal rotunda with 90ft (27m) tall atrium is indeed quite a view. Two nice Canadian guys (clue: sweatshirts with red maple leaves) cheerfully told me that a fashion show would be there on 10pm, using mezzanines as catwalks. 

Rotunda's dome is supported by metal truss

An octagonal central tower, the granite stone cladding, a mid-19th century institution... They are concurrent themes of this blog as well as the buildings Gridley J. F. Bryant designed. As the Cambridge Poor Farm I covered in the previous post, the jail was completed in 1851. I don't know which building he designed first, the hotel claims the jail was "the first large public building designed by Gridley John Fox Bryant."

Two aerial pictures below are screen shots cropped by the same scale. The Charles St Jail is bigger than the Cambridge Poor House, but wow, it's a dead ringer.

Charles St Jail

The jail was designed to allow good air flow and sunlight by installing ventilation shafts thorough the rotunda's cupola and large cathedral like windows. The idea of allowing air flow and sunlight into the interior was proposed by a Bryant's co-worker, Rev. Louis Dwight who also helped designing the Cambridge Poor House. I tell you, even modern day American prisons, Tuberculosis is a big health hazard among prisoners, officers, and even volunteers; doctors would tell you it's a high risk area!

Rev. Dwight was a strong advocate for the Auburn System of penitential management, allowing inmates to be together (silently, though) and giving them individual cells during the night. On the other hand, the Pennsylvania System demanded prisoners to be completely alone. The purpose of the isolation was to reflect their own thoughts through the silence, but many inmates ended up suffering from mental illness.

Some of the prison cells are preserved, and you can drink cocktails in or by the cell in a trendy setting. I was expecting something like eating prison meals and drinking prison-inspired booze in the cell, though. I guess I'm asking too much. If you visit Beacon Hill and want something different, I recommend checking out the hotel. There is a small museum space open to public.

Locate Charles St. Prison @ Google Map

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