Liberty Hotel

What do Malcolm X, Sacco and Vanzetti, famed Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, and the Boston Strangler have in common?

All of them stayed in the historic establishment that will reopen this August as The Liberty Hotel.

Boston's newest luxury lodgings will boast a view of the Charles River and Beacon Hill but its old bones afford an even bigger view into an often unsavory past, as WBUR's David Boeri reports.TEXT OF STORY

BOERI: "What was the popular name for it?"

MARTY COLEMAN: "The Charles Street Jail. Everyone knew it as that. And no one wanted to go there."

BOERI: With the face lift of sandblasting, the notorious old jail gleams and the developers have given new life to its interior. But in Boston nothing is ever truly liberated from the past, because it never seems the past is passed. That was clear when retired Boston cop Marty Coleman joined me on a tour of the "Liberty Hotel." Coleman worked here as a prison guard in the early sixties.

COLEMAN: "It was hard time, because there were all these pigeons flying inside. And the word was if you got hit with the droppings it was good luck. But there was no such thing as good luck in this place."

BOERI: The Charles Street Jail opened in 1851 as a symbol of humanitarian ideals. It had spacious cells, high windows that allowed for lots of light and ventilation, and a cathedral-like rotunda. Time changed expectations of reform, but not the granite.

RICHARD FRIEDMAN: "When I first came in here, it blew my mind. We got to do it. It's such a fabulous building."

BOERI: Developer Richard Friedman who made his reputation with the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, oversees the transformation of the Charles Street Jail. He strides through the building, calling out to workers.

FRIEDMAN: "What's happening brother?"BOERI: Lifting saw horses, opening "cell" doors, and stopping to admire the renovated rotunda. It's a magnificent open dome, ninety feet high, and it will be the public space and heart of the new hotel.

FRIEDMAN: "The ceiling was dropped 40 to 50 feet below this in the 1920's to save heat and we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove guano."

BOERI: "You mean pigeon droppings."


FRIEDMAN: "Yes and so none of prisoners ever saw this incredible ceiling."

BOERI: The rotunda is such a lavish use of space that no one could afford to build it today. The renovated jail and the sixteen story tower Friedman has attached to it will cost $115-million. For historic preservation the owners will get $17-million in tax credits. And in August, guests can behold the grandeur in "Extreme Makeover: Jail Edition."ROBERT RUFO, Former Sheriff: "Everyone remembers their first day in jail and their last day."

BOERI: On his last day, Robert Rufo closed the jail in 1990. By then he was the sheriff. His first day was in the seventies.

BOERI: "If someone had told you during those twenty tumultuous years that this would become a four star luxury hotel, what would you have thought?"

RUFO: "I would have laughed hysterically."

BOERI: Pointing out a patch of black soot the sandblasters didn't get out of the granite, Rufo, who's now a judge, remembers the grime and smell, the din and chill of the past. He says the jail was like walking into a human bird cage.

RUFO: "It was all tiered and fenced off and barred so that we the guards were on one side and the prisoners were on the other and we were looking at them and they were looking at us."

BOERI: The brick walls had thirteen coats of government surplus paint the color of a canary. Former guard Marty Coleman remembers jail birds of all feathers.

COLEMAN: "And anyone who was in there awaiting trial for murder had a room on the row."

BOERI: On any day there might be a hundred inmates on the row, with names like Joe "The Animal," Ronnie "The Pig," Vinnie "The Bear" and Romeo "The Goat." It was a real menagerie. Marty points out the cell that held Joe "The Animal" Barboza, an outrageous liar who became the government's first star witness against the Mafia. But investors on this tour were looking at upholstery not history.

SOUND FROM A TOUR: "These are the finishes, and this is the furniture we'll have, and here is a standard king sized guest room here."

BOERI: All these years later, the hotel that rose from the human bird cage the cons wanted to fly from is trying to outdo all the other hotels in town, with a list of luxuries that makes former sheriff Rufo laugh.

BOERI: "Heated towels, and hot water. Those weren't standard amenities for you. You had cold water and obviously you had ice."

RUFO: "In the winter after dinner and after the floor was washed down, the water would freeze and in the summer time after the granite heated up it would be a hundred degrees until October."

BOERI: The four fixture baths remind Marty Coleman of his former duty as custodian of the razor at shaving time.

COLEMAN: "You had to use it for seven times, one razor for seven guys and by the time the seventh guy came it looked like the Boston massacre, he was really chafed. But every time Barboza came in it was new blades. No one wanted to take him on."

BOERI: There will be no waiters in orange uniforms or handcuffs in guest rooms in the new Liberty Hotel. The owners play down references to the fact this was a jail. But, sometimes they can't help themselves. After all, this was a jail.

FRIEDMAN: "So here is the bar. This is the jail bar. The Lock Down."

BOERI: Back when the Lockdown wasn't for cocktails, there were numerous escapes. Coleman recalls one involving a killer named Rocco Balliro.

COLEMAN: "One guard smuggled the hacksaw blade in and Rocco went right through. Of course the iron was from way back in 1851. It went like butter, whoop, and he bent back the bars and walked right out."

BOERI: Even with the express check-outs, the old jail had a problem the owners of any hotel would envy: chronic overcrowding.

BOERI: "You were the Sheriff. You ran the place. It must have been a nightmare all those years."

RUFO: "From the day I started there was never a vacancy sign flashing out front. It was always no vacancy, for sure. It was bedlam."

BOERI: From mid century on, federal judges had described it as oppressive, degrading, and more suited to hogs than people. But as wretched as it was, the jail might still be running were it not for Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity. He showed up one day in 1973, and announced he was spending the night in a cell.

RUFO: "Cell number 63. I remember it well. He came in with his law clerk."

BOERI: It didn't help that the plumbing was bad and the sink overflowed.

RUFO: "His law clerk actually had to bang the pipes with the heel of his shoe to free up the flow of water that was going on. You can read it in a footnote if you read it."

BOERI: Judge Garrity's guest comment card was a devastating account of the miseries.

RUFO: "He hit on them and said that's it. It's unconstitutional and it has to be closed."

BOERI: And 17 years later, in 1990, it finally was closed. The jail became a big granite sarcophagus holding history, debris, droppings of pigeons and who knew, the seeds of a luxury hotel.

SOUND OF A WAITRESS INSIDE BAR: "It's Korean beef skewers in a ginger sauce."

BOERI: Showing the grand ballroom, developer Dick Friedman says he's captivated.

FRIEDMAN: "What a grand thing to have a wedding in a ballroom with bars, you know."

WAITRESS: "Lemon or lime?"
BOERI: "I'll have a glass of chardonnay if I may."
COLEMAN: "You're really gentrified David."
BOERI: The last time Marty Coleman was here, the old jail laid out one hot meal a day: Mashed potatoes, fried bologna sandwiches, and cool-aid.

BOERI: "Here's to the old jail. Cheers"

COLEMAN: "Cheers to you too."

BOERI: For WBUR, I'm David Boeri.

For more on jail turned luxury hotel and for a link to the blog for Radio Boston, WBUR's new radio show on Boston and beyond click on Radio Boston. Host David Boeri blogs on the old jail, the new hotel, and the nature of his show that will air this fall on WBUR.


NOTE: In 1989, Jim Stallions, a student at the New England School of Photography, spent a day shooting pictures at the Charles Street Jail for project called "A Day In The Life of Boston. A year later, the notorious jail was finally shut down. We wish to thank him for sharing some of his photos.

This program aired on June 5, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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