BOSTON - The elegant iron-railing balconies were once catwalks where guards stood watch over the inmates to make sure they didn't try to break out. If you look closely, you can still see the outline of the holes from the iron bars on the windows.
At the newly opened Liberty Hotel, it's hard to escape what this building once was: a decrepit jail where Boston locked up its most notorious prisoners.
But that's just the point.
After a five-year, $150 million renovation, the old Charles Street jail is now a luxury hotel for guests who can afford to pay anywhere from $319 a night for the lowest-priced room to $5,500 for the presidential suite. The hotel, at the foot of Boston's stately Beacon Hill neighborhood, opened in September.
Architects took pains to preserve many features of the 156-year-old stone building and its history.
The old sally port, where guards once brought prisoners from paddy wagons to their cells, is being converted into the entrance to a new restaurant, Scampo, which is Italian for "escape."
In another restaurant, named Clink, diners can look through original bars from cell doors and windows as they order smoked lobster bisque or citrus poached prawns from waiters and waitresses wearing shirts with prison numbers. The hotel bar, Alibi, is built in the jail's former drunk tank.
Instead of con men, counterfeiters and cat burglars, the guests now include Mick Jagger, Annette Bening, Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes.
The old clientele included Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, who served time for fraud in 1904 after he took a civil service exam for a friend; Frank Abagnale Jr., a 1960s con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie "Catch Me If You Can;" a group of thieves who pulled off the Great Brinks Robbery in Boston in 1950; and a German U-boat captain who was captured in 1945 and killed himself with shards from his sunglasses.
Boston also has a luxury hotel called Jurys in the former Boston police headquarters building in fashionable Back Bay. The hotel bar is called Cuffs.
The transformation of the Charles Street Jail is stunning to some of those who spent time in the notorious lockup.
"It's a magnificent place," said Bill Baird, an activist locked up for 37 days in 1967 for breaking a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people. His arrest led to a landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing birth control for unmarried people.
"How you could take something that was so horrible and turn it into something of tremendous beauty, I don't know," said Baird, who visited the new hotel in October, on the 40th anniversary of his conviction.
When the jail opened in 1851, it was hailed as an international model for prison architecture. Built in the shape of a cross, the granite jail had a 90-foot-high central rotunda and four wings of cells. Large arched windows provided lots of natural light and good ventilation. Each of the 220 cells housed just one inmate.
But over the years, the jail fell into disrepair and became filthy, overcrowded and prone to riots.
Joseph Salvati, who spent 10 months in the jail in 1967 and 1968 after he was charged in a gangland slaying, said everything was covered with pigeon droppings.
"They had a crew every morning that would come down with hot water hoses and brushes to scrape it off the floor and seats," he said. "You had to rush down for breakfast to get a seat that was clean."
Salvati, who was exonerated after spending 30 years in various prisons, said he gets a kick out of seeing the jail turned into a luxury hotel. It is now "very classy-looking," he said.
In the 1970s, the inmates sued over the squalid conditions. After spending a night at the jail to see things for himself, a federal judge in 1973 ordered the place closed. But it took until 1990 for a new jail to be built and the last inmates to be moved.
The property was bought by Massachusetts General Hospital, next door, which invited proposals for preserving the building's historical character.
Cambridge developer Richard Friedman said the architects tried to retain some original elements while not reminding people too much of its dark past.
"How do you transform that into a joyous place where people have fun and a good time?" Friedman said. "We tried to use a sense of humor."
Charlene Swauger of Albuquerque, N.M., who stayed at the hotel for a long weekend in October, said the designers preserved elements of the old jail without crossing the line into bad taste.
"I thought it was very clever. I didn't discover any ghosts or anything," she said.
Eighteen of the hotel's 298 rooms are built in the original jail. Those rooms feature the original brick walls of the jail but also have high-definition TVs. The remaining rooms are in a new 16-story tower.
Max Stern, the chief lawyer for the inmates whose lawsuit led to the jail's closing, said some aspects of the project such as calling the restaurant Clink are too lighthearted.
"I thought they could have been a little more objective about what it really was like," he said.