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Boston’s Liberty Hotel: Take a video tour

The 19th-century building was born as a jail

The bones of Boston’s 300-room Liberty Hotel date from 1851, when it was born as a distinctly different property: The Charles Street Jail.

Boston architect Gridley James Fox designed the 220-cell jail in the form of a cross, its four wings shooting off from a central, octagonal rotunda with a 90-foot atrium. That way, inmates could be divided by gender and category of offense.

The jail’s 30 arched windows were meant to provide plenty of ventilation and natural light to those inmates.

Though both the cross design and the windows were supposed to render the facility more humane than your average 19th-century jail, it became notorious for overcrowding. Still, it would be nearly a century and a half before federal authorities forced its closure.

Between its opening and that closure over Memorial Day Weekend in 1990, the Charles Street Jail held such notables as civil rights activist Malcolm X, disgraced Boston Mayor (and Massachusetts Governor and Congressman) James Michael Curley, and Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

As for the Liberty Hotel there now, its design from Cambridge Seven Associates and Ann Beha Architects retains the soaring rotunda and other original details—including some cell bars.