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The front exterior of the new Liberty Hotel at Charles Circle.
The front exterior of the new Liberty Hotel at Charles Circle. The building once housed the Charles Street Jail. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Hotel aims to captivate

City's newest inn preserves touches of old Charles Street Jail, but there's a price to pay for the luxury

One restaurant is called Clink. Another is Scampo, Italian for "escape." The bar is named Alibi.

"You'll know this was a jail," developer Richard L. Friedman promised last year, when he was in the middle of converting the 156-year-old Charles Street Jail into the Liberty Hotel.

He was telling the truth.

The 298-room hotel, at Charles Circle on the site of the old jail, officially opens tomorrow, following a $150 million renovation that included construction of a 16-story tower.

The slogan: "Be captivated."

Narrow cell door openings and bars remain as reminders of the structure's past life. Tile blocks in the floor, forming the footprint of a cell, illustrate how confining the place used to be. Some of the interior brick walls are the same ones that involuntary guests stared at.

Guests don't have to be accused of committing a crime to spend the night, as was required for almost a century and a half, but there is a fairly stiff price to pay: Rates for regular rooms range from $319 to $525 a night. The 16th-floor presidential suite, at $5,500 a night, is as big as a modest suburban home, with a balcony overlooking the Back Bay and a view of the Charles River from the bathtub.

Hotel executives wouldn't say whether that luxury suite was built with Hillary Clinton - a pal of developer Friedman - in mind. But it is a spectacular space, as is most of the rest of the brick and granite complex, which is vying to be Boston's number one place to stay, or just to meet and hang out.

The exterior has been impeccably restored, with turret-like roof vents and decorative oval panes with the original glass.

The 3,000-square-foot Liberty Ballroom features chandeliers modeled on 19th century designs. Carpets and walls have historic color schemes and patterns, like the crewel work of the time, Regan Dillon, director of public relations, said during a preopening tour.

"This is our Breathtaking Room," said Dillon, showing one of the 18 units in the renovated jail structure looking out on the Esplanade; it's $575 a night (more on July Fourth). Somewhat less expensive accommodations include Fantastic Rooms, Ultra Fantastic Rooms, and Spectacular Rooms.

The hotel entrance, across from an MBTA station, has an almost claustrophobically low ceiling. But after dropping their luggage just inside the doors, guests will take an escalator up to an 80-by-80-foot lobby under a 90-foot rotunda.

The space was once an indoor exercise area for inmates, with cellblocks extending out like spokes. Now it accommodates the front desk, a lounge, and a bar. It is also not a bad place to just stare up at some ingenious architecture.

A false ceiling was removed, and a cupola taller than the jail had ever seen was manufactured and installed. Peter Diana, vice president of Carpenter & Co., the developer, said the restoration matches what was originally designed for the jail. In a 19th century cost-cutting move, a cheaper cupola was erected.

The new one is "taller and nicer looking," Diana said, but that and other changes drove the initial cost estimate of $100 million up by about 50 percent.

Liberty Hotel was designed by Cambridge Seven Associates Inc., with historic work by Ann Beha Associates. Interiors are by Alexandra Champalimaud & Associates Inc. of New York, and art by Boston artist Anja Kola. A striking red, white, and black mural extending between escalators leading to the lobby is the work of Providence artist Coral Bourgeois. The hotel is operated by MTM Luxury Lodging of Seattle; general manager is Stuart Meyerson.

Boston chef Lydia Shire and club developer Pat Lyons will operate the Scampo restaurant, and Lyons will run the Alibi bar.

Friedman and his partner, Kennedy Associates Real Estate Counsel LP, a Seattle pension fund adviser, are counting on a chunk of business from Massachusetts General Hospital, which is connected to the jail and owns the property it is built on.

A few years ago, Friedman, who developed the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, struggled to include in his Charles Circle development a small plot of land formerly occupied by Buzzy's Fabulous Roast Beef, a legendary late-night take-out spot.

After Mass. General bought the property for $2.75 million, and Buzzy's closed, Friedman vowed to memorialize it in the hotel.

Dillon said a Buzzy's sandwich one day will appear in the lineup at Clink.

Thomas C. Palmer Jr. can be reached at tpalmer@globe.com.

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