The Liberty Hotel, Cambridge St. and Charles St.

Tuesday, March 1st, 5:54pm

“What is that?,” I have wondered the several times I have walked by in recent years. The sign out front establishes the place as a hotel, but I cannot fathom the construction of such an imposing and dignified stone temple as a gorgeous luxury hotel. Tucked against one of the new gleaming glass towers of a Mass. General Hospital complex, the edifice seems especially out of place on what has otherwise become a rather industrial medical campus.

A row of expensive luxury cars parked out front deters the average plebe from even approaching the nattily attired doormen who guard the entrance. I bow my head and infiltrate the building. I emerge in a dimly lit vestibule with a low ceiling. The darkness swallows the fading vernal twilight outside.

Angled escalators with a modernist tile mosaic between them lead up through an opening to the floor above. Hip music with a driving beat courses through the place. The darkness and music fuse to fashion the chic atmosphere of the place. Ascending to the second-floor lobby, I see well-dressed professionals seated around the room at various trendy ensembles of furniture to enjoy an after-work cocktail from Clink, the bar presumably named for the sound of martini glasses colliding in celebration.

The square symmetrical floor plan of the grand central atrium sits on a diagonal, with the escalators leading from the entrance on one corner toward the opposite back corner of the building. Truncating each corner of the room, four tall arching glass windows rise up three stories from the second floor. Each of the side walls of the chamber features a central brick interior wall flanked on each side by a white panel with the painted-on silhouette of a dark autumnal tree twisting its way toward the ceiling. Three successive balconies rise along the walls to form a Catwalk that encircles the room and lends the name to the lounge on the upper floors. The four massive wrought-iron, chain-link chandeliers that hang heavily from each corner of the ceiling project a peculiar blend of elegance and foreboding. Above the fifth floor balcony, the interior wall extends in worn brick up to a wooden vaulted ceiling – a dead giveaway that this hotel makes adaptive reuse of the building. I should have known.

Looking for a way to reach a better vantage point from one of the upper balconies, I test the hallway to the left of the reception desk and find an elevator that leads upstairs. I enter only to find that I need a guest room key to go up. I stall until I can sidle up to an actual guest waiting for the elevator. My ploy works to perfection until I reach the third floor and find myself trapped in a hallway of guest rooms that leads nowhere. Descending again, I notice a set of informational panels describing the history of the old Charles Street Jailhouse and suddenly the building comes into clearer focus: the Liberty Hotel, Clink, the Catwalk. The bars of prison cells line the wall outside the bathrooms.

I leave that hallway and try another where I find a different elevator leading up to the Catwalk and the Jailhouse guest rooms. I alight at the third floor balcony and appropriate a low leather couch on the far side of the balcony. All the while I worry someone will notice me, catch me, tell me to leave. I suppose such a fate would be better than being locked up, but the driving music keeps me on edge nevertheless. The chatter from below drifts up through the jailhouse. I steel myself, rise from my cot, and make a run for it.