If These Walls Could Talk: CLINK. in Boston

By Kathleen Squires  |  October 2, 2013

If the walls in restaurants could talk, what stories would they tell about the people who passed through and the events that occurred there over time? Restaurants, like an old, venerable relative, can be full of fascinating, quirky, and sometimes sordid tales of the past. In our new series, we uncover some of those intriguing histories.

If you’re headed to “the clink” in Boston, it could mean one of two things. You’re either in the back of a police car, handcuffed and in big, big trouble. Or you’re about to tuck into a Wagyu beef tartare or some potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, behind bars, at the exclusive Liberty Hotel. Diners at CLINK. restaurant within the hotel immediately understand the significance of the name. The space used to be the Charles Street Jail, after all.

Constructed in 1851, Gridley J. F. Bryant, known as Boston’s “father of granite architecture,” designed the building with stones from Quincy quarry. The prison was originally built for reformation rather than incarceration, as suggested by windows that actually opened, letting in natural light and fresh air to the prisoners. When slugger Babe Ruth toured the facility in 1926, he clairvoyantly cracked, “This isn’t a jail. It’s like a hotel,” in praise of the cushy conditions.

The humanitarian atmosphere quickly changed, however, due to overcrowding. According to the Boston Globe, by 1928, relatives of inmates complained that prisoners were only served one cold meal a day and “personal waste buckets” were emptied only a few times weekly. There was no dining hall and no gym, and the prisoners were spending up to 19 hours locked in their cells. The decline continued for decades, spurring a series of jail breaks, mostly in the 1960s, when six inmates escaped by sawing through cell bars in a 15-month period. In the 1970s, reverend Daniel Berrigan was quoted as saying, “If this jail were turned into a place for animals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would close it down in a week.”

In 1973, 60 men refused to return to the squalor of their cells, which the Globe reported included “mattresses reeking of vomit and urine.” A riot ensued, with 230 prisoners causing $250,000 of damage to the property. The melee caught the attention of Federal Court judge W. Arthur Garrity, who spent a night on murderer’s row in order to assess the conditions. Even though he received the VIP treatment, Garrity ruled that the prisoners’ constitutional rights were being violated by the inhumane conditions, and he ordered that the facility be shut down. Prisoners languished in the building until a new facility was built, and the Charles Street Jail was finally shuttered in 1990.

Many notable prisoners have passed through the jail over the years. In 1904, Boston mayor James Michael Curley did time for taking the civic service exam for a buddy. He ran for reelection, and won, while in the slammer, before going on to Congress and becoming governor of Massachusetts. In 1919, a number of suffragettes were held for civil disobedience when picketing President Woodrow Wilson during a Boston visit. Malcolm X, Sacco and Vanzetti, and German U boat captives during World War II were also interned at the Charles Street Jail.

Today, incarceration at CLINK. means a four-course meal and a $500 room at the Starwood property. The 298-room luxury hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, opened in 2007 after a $150 million dollar renovation. The hotel and restaurant’s design, including original cell bars, still reveal the building’s storied past. Slate tiles among the wood floor in CLINK. denote the footprint and exact size of the old cells, and the cat walks are now balconies in the hotel’s atrium. Alibi, the bar directly below CLINK., was once the jail’s drunk tank. The hotel also holds a “history gallery,” which chronicles the building’s transformation from jail to hotel.

Before the hotel’s opening, developers brought in Buddhist monks to cleanse the space of its bad karma, as well as any lingering spirits. While there have been no complaints from guests about ghostly visits from former inmates, a few former guards have been known to come by to deliver artifacts from the old Charles Street Jail. “One former guard gave us this great lock,” says Rachel Moniz, the Liberty Hotel’s general manager. “So we had this lock, then about six months later, another guard came and gave us the real, antique key.” Guests are relieved that those artifacts and some design elements are the only remnants of the space’s past, Moniz says. “We no longer just serve bread and water,” she assures. “Diners at CLINK. can expect much more now.”