Look what they did with Boston’s old jail

Oh, what a difference a few months make.

Prospects of saving the old St. Louis County Jail seemed grim two months ago. The county’s attempt to get a demolition permit was blocked. Then their efforts to sell the vacant building had produced no viable offer.

The wrecking ball was looming again for the local landmark.

Now the 1920s-era jail’s sale to a development team from Minneapolis who plan to adapt it for refuse — most likely office and conference space — is set to close April 16.

Time will tell if they’re successful.

In the meantime, for inspiration, consider what was done with Boston’s Charles Street Jail. In recent years, the 19th Century jail — which is a National Historic Landmark –has been transformed into a luxury hotel that incorporates its history and has revitalized the city’s old West End neighborhood. The Liberty Hotel, which opened in 2007, has become a premier hotel in New England. It’s bars and restaurants — Clink, Alibi and Scumpo ("escape" in Italian) — are popular and considered hip places to go.

Built in 1851, the building served as the Suffolk County Jail until its 1990 closing. Then — like the St. Louis County Jail — it was neglected and its condition deteriorated.

In time, the roof of the old Boston jail had holes and leaked. Pigeons moved in. Junk filled the premises. Peeling paint mixed with the graffiti left by inmates on cell walls.

But some developers with deep pockets saw beyond the blackened granite, crumbling plaster, ramshackle steel supports and moisture damage to the architectural treasure that it is.

Built of stone, four wings radiate from a central octagonal rotunda in a cross shape. A cupola rises up from the rotunda. The exterior is granite. Enormous windows bring in natural light.

During the renovation, the damaged roof was removed and the cell blocks were systematically removed. Numerous layers of paint were stripped to expose the brick walls. The granite was cleaned and brighted to a silver gray. An entire wing was deconstructed, then recontructed, block-by-block. Some cells, which had been built large enough to exercise in, were turned into luxury rooms. A 16-story tower was added, providing 300 more rooms.

The transformation took five years. Today, sophisticated decor mixes with historical components, including a 90-foot tall atrium, several levels of catwalks and metal stairs encircling the rotunda and remnants of cells and window bars. Catwalks connect the hotel’s restaurants, grand ballroom, lobby, meeting rooms and other public spaces.

Granted, the project was huge. And with a price tag of $110 million, it was expensive. But if adaptive reuse is possible for a 150-year-old jail, surely there’s new life possible for the much smaller, 86-year-old county jail in Duluth.

5 thoughts on “Look what they did with Boston’s old jail

  1. Beacon Hill is the ritziest, most expensive neighborhood in a city of 589,000 people. Less-wealthy Duluth has, what, 85,000 residents?

    People really overestimate how much money there is to spend on “luxury hotels” and “conference space,” and the fabled “money from the Cities” hasn’t really helped places like the many condo developments that are floundering.

    The St. Louis County Jail is a beautiful building, but it’s okay to let things go once in awhile. The past isn’t meant to be held onto with a death grip.

  2. I’ve stayed at the Liberty when visited my daughter who lives on Beacon Hill. It’s gorgeous and trendy and Scompo and Alibi are wonderful. They greet you with a glass of champagne upon check in- it’s totally classy experience and a great addition to Boston.

  3. As Todd pointed out, here we go again. Comparing our situation to a situation in a community that is so vastly different than Duluth. That’s how we got “sold” the aquarium project as well as several others over the years.

    It’s not that I’m saying that the jail project isn’t a worth project for out city…..but let’s just not fall into the trap of looking at cities that bear no resemblance to Duluth either economically or in size or location etc… I think we’ve proven over the past decades that we’re a very unique community. Things that work well in other places seem to have a hard time working here. I’m not entirely sure why that is…but I do know that it is that way.

  4. Fact is anything can be rejuvinated if you have endless money to throw at the project. I would bet there aren’t many low to middle income people spending a night at the old Boston jail. We’ll find out how the project in Duluth will progress when we find out about how it will be financed and if the taxpayers will be asked to help out. What about parking, are the tenants going to use the county ramp and pay to use it? Hopefully we are not just spinning our wheels on this project.

Comments are closed.