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From jail to hotel: Windows that work

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The Boston Charles Street Jail has been renovated into a posh hotel in the center of the city. A part of maintaining and updating this historic building was ensuring the windows kept their historical significance while ensuring better thermal performance.   
Photo courtesy Bill Horsman Photography

By Ryan Noble
When baseball superstar Babe Ruth toured Boston’s Charles Street Jail in 1925, he famously quipped: “This isn’t a jail, it’s a hotel”—a prophecy that has since come true. Now known as the Liberty Hotel, this 298-room, high-end hospitality destination retains its architectural heritage with its famed rotunda, jail-themed bars and restaurants, and its historically accurate replacement windows.

“Our area is filled with historic properties that have old steel-framed, single-pane windows, and the Liberty’s new windows carefully mimic the sightlines, true divided lites, and arched tops of these original windows, and bring the high performance of modern aluminum frames and low-emissivity (low-e) glass,” described Dan Cherney, an architectural sales representative with the glazing company. “Little did the 19th-century prisoners at Charles Street know, they were resting on what would become $500 per night space in a prime city location.”

From 1851 to 1990, the list of those housed by Charles Street Jail included former Boston mayor (and later Massachusetts governor) James Michael Curley, Malcolm X, and Sacco and Vanzetti.

The building “resonated with a strength and dignity appropriate for the era, and for Bostonians’ sensibilities,” said historians. Architect Gridley James Fox Bryant—widely considered Boston’s most accomplished architect of the 19th century—designed the original penitentiary. A proponent of the ‘Granite Style,’ he embraced the many technological and social changes of the age, forming strategic partnerships with other architects and reformers. On the Charles Street Jail, he collaborated with Rev. Louis Dwight—a prominent Yale-educated penologist with an active interest in and advocacy for prison reform.

“What is fame in architecture in these latter days?” Bryant wrote toward the end of his life. “Is it to witness the demolition of radical remodeling of an architect’s work, with less than a century of its real usefulness about it?”

Through restoration, reuse, and reinvention, this abandoned structure was reborn as a vital commercial development that complements the urban fabric of its Beacon Hill neighborhood. With respect to Bryant’s intention and inspired by his progressive vision of the future, Cambridge Seven Associates worked with preservation architect Ann Beha Architects (ABA), and developers Carpenter & Company in the early 2000s to reimagine the property as an exclusive hotel and hospitality venue.

“The most sustainable project is one that improves on what’s already built,” Cherney said. Thoughtful, historic renovation achieves high standards for technical and operational performance, preserves character-defining features, while successfully meeting the needs of the users now and long into the future.”

To match exact, historic details, the new windows for the space include true divided lites and custom-machined grilles to honor the landmark structures in which they are installed.

“In the years prior to World War II, glass-making technology limited the size of individual glass lites. Only true divided lites can reproduce this aesthetic with the fidelity required for rigorous historical preservation,” explained Cherney.

Thermal barrier framing contributes to the building’s energy-saving goals and condensation resistance.

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