When entering The Liberty Hotel, a West End hotel that previously housed the Charles Street Jail, I was expecting to be hit with ghastly views of concrete and grid-like metal railings. But instead, I found myself in a chic, restaurant-like space. I giggled as I took my first glimpse inside; it was amusing how a jail had basically been transformed into a high-ceilinged Starbucks. The underlying layers became apparent as I spent more time here. Because the hotel is multilayered, it’s analogous to a palimpsest, which is a manuscript page from which text has been washed off so it can be overwritten.
I decided to observe the lobby from the interior terrace. My smile faded when I realized I’m in a scopophobic pressure cooker. I felt like I was being watched from every direction due to the space’s configuration. One could get a panoramic view of the space from any corner. Typically, hotels are intimate places. Hotel bars are usually in room-like areas. But from this hotel’s lobby, I could see what type of Chardonnay the bargoers were drinking. Conventional hotel elevators are secluded in a corner. But here, not only could I see individuals entering elevators from any vantage point, I could see where they got off. They could see me as easily.
By dividing this high-ceilinged space into multiple floors, the proprietors could have made visitors’ experience less paranoid, but that experience sends a powerful message about the hotel’s past and the neighborhood’s past. The setup allowed me to sample the psychological impact that the jail may have had on inmates, constantly knowing that just a single watchman could be watching. To assuage this anxiety, I took out my phone and checked the news, only to see an article about Trump repealing privacy laws to increase surveillance.
The West End’s past as a dumping ground of society’s problems like poverty and lack of assimilation to American ideals presented itself through details like rickety scaffolding and through metal railings in the hotel restaurant that were more appropriate for a dungeon than those who were “innocent until proven guilty.”