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Liberty Hotel, Boston, USA

Issue 53 Feb/Mar 2010 : Retail : Hotel


Converting a prison building into a hotel is a difficult task - especially when the rough edged character of the jail is to be retained. A combination of dramatic, decorative and low level lighting from C.M. Kling & Associates has helped to achieve a stunning transformation

Completed in 1851, the Liberty Hotel’s first incarnation was a prison - a collaboration between architect Gridley James Fox Bryant, widely considered Boston’s most accomplished architect of the time, and Rev. Louis Dwight, a prominent Yale-educated penologist whose travels shaped his interest in and advocacy for prison reform. Thought to be one of the best examples of the “Boston Granite Style” of the mid-19th century, the building “resonated with a strength and dignity appropriate for the era and for Bostonians’ sensibilities”, said historians.

In 1973, after 120 years of housing some of Boston’s most notorious criminals, prisoners revolted because of poor living conditions and the jail was declared unfit and in violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights. On Memorial Day weekend 1990, the last prisoners were moved to the new Suffolk County Jail. In 1991, Massachusetts General Hospital acquired the obsolete property and sought proposals for its reuse, requiring that significant elements of the building be preserved. In 2001, Carpenter & Company was designated the developer of the project, and entered into a lease agreement with MGH for the land and the jail itself.

Bryant had initially drafted a dramatic cupola, designed to bring further light and air into the rotunda. Unfortunately, it was a focal point that, at the time of the building’s construction, was reduced in size to save money. In 1949, it was removed altogether. In one of many restoration decisions, the cupola was painstakingly rebuilt based on Bryant’s original design.

The transformation of the site into a hotel is the work of a team of designers and architects collaborating with historians and conservationists from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Boston Landmarks Commission, the National Park Service and the Boston Redevelopment Authority to ensure that the end result is a careful balance between preservation and dynamic new use.
Drawn to the building’s dramatic spatial qualities, the team tapped Bryant’s original architectural drawings to ensure adherence to his creative vision for the cruciform-shaped building. Owing much of its character to the powerful Romanesque and Renaissance forms used in its design, the building consists of an octagonal central building featuring four circular wood ‘ocular’ windows and four radiating wings, each with large three-story arched windows highlighted by articulated wedge-shaped, stone ‘voussoirs’ characteristic of French design. At the time, the windows were thought to yield light “four times as great as that in any prison yet constructed”.

Apart from this addition, the jail’s granite exterior and expansive, light-filled interiors remain largely unchanged. Soaring 90 feet, the jail’s central atrium was beautifully preserved and forms the core of the hotel. It features the building’s trademark windows and historic catwalks. The preserved jail cells within the hotel restaurant and wrought-iron work on the windows are just two examples of preservation. The jail’s former exercise yard is now a private, beautifully landscaped courtyard that is destined to take its place amongst the beloved ‘hidden gardens’ of the Beacon Hill neighbourhood.

The interior design team was tasked with infusing the hotel with a distinctive personality that honours the building’s rich history while imparting contemporary vibrancy. To that end, in a modern counterpoint to the building’s exterior, the hotel’s stylish reception desk is crafted of ebonised wood with lacquered stencilled patterns reminiscent of 1850’s embroidery work; carpets recall the old-fashioned crewel work of New England, enlarged and contemporised; and American colonial prints in historic colours such as maroon, grey and purple, creating an updated take on a traditional look. Finally, exposed brick walls and a striking wrought iron chandelier add visual interest to the lobby while underscoring a commitment to historic and understated materials.
Creating an ambiance typical to a boutique hotel while recognising the historic prison, presented unique design challenges. The design team was tasked with infusing the hotel with a distinctive personality that honours the building’s rich history while imparting contemporary vibrancy.

The existing prison was developed into the primary public spaces with a new 16-story guest room tower connected. The lighting, by C. M. Kling & Associates, was challenged with extremely tight budget constraints as much of the funding went to unanticipated architectural restoration, limitations in mounting to or penetrating the historic fabric and minimal installation space.

As guests enter the lobby via an escalator from the ground level, lighting is critical in providing wayfinding and establishing the mood. The extremely tall ceilings and rough edge of the jail theme can be offputting in the context of a hotel. A mix of dramatic, decorative and low level lighting helps to scale down the volume of space. Around the perimeter, where balconies line the edges of the atrium, lighting calls out human scale elements to the guest.

Ingrade halogen uplights illuminate fabric tree murals that bridge the floors throughout the atrium. Low voltage halogen wall grazing strips illuminate the brick walls. These are lamped with spot lamps without lenses. The resulting pattern is a subtle recall of prison bars. All atrium lighting, as well as elevator lobbies and guest corridors, use the same lamps - 35W IR MR16. This provides for easy maintenance throughout the facility.

The scale and character of the Charles Street Jail is juxtaposed with the new red brick guest tower. The prison yard is reinvented as the entry drive. To keep the view of the historic structure unobstructed, 150W CMH pole lights were used at the perimeter of the drive only. Low level louvered halogen bollards controlled via the dimming system illuminate the walkways, setting the ambiance of this hotel.    

Ceramic metal halide uplights accent the imposing granite façade and entry canopy adding drama and a sense of arrival. Glimpses of the warm interior are visible through the refurbished windows inviting the guest in. As guests arrive on the lower ground level a framed escalator opening provides a choreographed entrance to the main lobby above.
Similar to the Atrium, in-floor MR16 uplights illuminate the dark wood walls and the ceiling. The ceiling in this space in only 8ft, the uplights diffuse the feeling of compression without diminishing the drama of the larger space above.

Theatrical spotlights mounted at the top of the atrium nearly 100ft away provide higher level illumination of the escalator.
Moving up the escalator to the lobby the lighting shows the mass and historic structure of the architectural space. Halogen uplights mounted in headers above the fifth floor doorways illuminate the original wood trusses.

All public spaces in the hotel were designed to be controlled and dimmed via a central dimming system. Without the lighting designer’s knowledge or input the owner agreed to a value engineering cost reduction to eliminate the central system and only provide wall box dimming in electrical rooms for the entire atrium. As the construction proceeded C. M. Kling & Associates spent many hours in discussion with the owner and the contracting team to evaluate which circuits needed to be controlled and in the end wound up with a smaller central dimming system. This proved quite a learning process.

Most lighting in the atrium is controlled via a central dimming system whilst fixtures intended for 24 hour use are controlled via wall box dimmers. The ballroom operates on an independent system and public corridors were not dimmed at the time of opening. A master plan to integrate those fixtures that were not controlled via the dimming system was developed and provided to the owners and several of these circuits have since been added to the system.

One wing of the original jail serves as the connection corridor to the new guest tower. Colour changing display walls set behind original jail cell bars provide a kinetic art piece. Halogen accent lights highlight historical displays, reminding the guests of the jails’ previous tenants.
The hotel ballroom occupies a double height space in the original west wing. 250W minican quartz downlights illuminate the main function space. PAR38 accent lights highlight speaker and head table locations. Hidden dimmable fluorescent strips in pockets highlight the inset fabric wall panels between the window bays. The custom chandeliers take historical references from textiles dating back to when the prison was first built.

Project Details
Liberty Hotel, Boston, USA
Client: Carpenter & Company
Lighting Design: C.M. Kling & Associates
Lead Architect: Cambridge Seven Associates
Interior Design: Champalimaud

Lighting Specified
ETC Unison dimming system; ETC Source Four 10 deg and 36 deg; Belfer MR16 wall graze fixtures; Martini MR16 uplights; Hydrel Exterior CMH uplights; Illumivision LED at signage; Bruck downlights in bar; RSA downlight throughout; Color Kinetics LED colour changing; BEGA exterior poles; Cooper Portfolio Downlights in ballroom


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