Cool hotels that take no prisoners

This storied 19th-century Charles Street Jail in tony Beacon Hill lay vacant for 15 years before developer Carpenter & Company turned it into one of Boston's most stylish hotels in 2007.
This storied 19th-century Charles Street Jail in tony Beacon Hill lay vacant for 15 years before developer Carpenter & Company turned it into one of Boston's most stylish hotels in 2007. Liberty Hotel
/ Source: Forbes

If an inmate of Her Majesty’s Prison in Oxford were to pay a return visit to his former clink today, he might come away wishing he’d committed his crime 40 years later. The castle-like walls, built for William the Conqueror in 1071, remain; as do the three-inch-thick steel doors in the cell blocks. But the prison’s name has been changed to the Malmaison and conditions have improved dramatically. The House of Correction gym features has state-of-the-art exercise equipment, and high tea, not corporeal punishment, is served up in the visitor’s room.

It was in 2005 that the Malmaison hotel chain turned the oldest prison in Britain into one of the classiest boutique hotels in the county. Instead of changing the old look, the designers created a jail house theme by keeping the wrought iron stairwell and many of the original jail bars and bare brick walls. To this, they added sleek touches of modern (free) living, such as soft mood lighting and original pieces of art. The dining area is now a chic brasserie with a menu featuring steak tartare and fillet of sea bass, and the old cells feature plasma TVs, heated slate-stone bathrooms, plush velvet curtains and fully stocked mini-bars.

For the Malmaison and other prisons-turned-hotels, guests are no longer required to do the crime to do the time. They simply pay top dollar to enjoy top-notch service from a crew of concierges, not a pack of prison guards. By no means is this a British trend. Jails, prisons and correctional facilities from Helsinki to Cape Town are being converted into hotels and guesthouses, and even budget lodges. In the United States at least two former jails are now hotels and three others have become small town bed & breakfasts.

Among the most famous is the 65-room Four Seasons Istanbul, which up until 1969 was the Sultanahmet Jail, a detention center for writers, journalists, artists and dissident intellectuals awaiting trial at a nearby courthouse in central Istanbul. When it opened as a hotel in 1996 the Four Seasons tried to play down its notorious past—until they realized it was good for business.

“Some guests want to see where the famous Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was detained,” says a receptionist. “Everyone is intrigued to hear it was a prison.” It doesn’t hurt that this neoclassical building is set around a beautiful landscaped courtyard, and is located just steps from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Walking its marbled floors beneath arched ceilings, it’s hard to imagine that this prison was depicted in the grim 1978 film "Midnight Express".

Whereas Istanbul’s Four Seasons originally tried to cover up its past identity, other jails-turned-hotels have taken the opposite tack. The Jail Hotel Loewengraben in old town Lucerne, Switzerland, functioned as a prison right up until 1998—the very same year it re-opened as a small, clean, unfussy boutique hotel. The rooms have bars on the windows, the doors tiny slots to push food through, and the communal areas are decorated with prison memorabilia. And just in case you missed the joke, the hotel bar is called Alcatraz.

One of the difficulties luxury hoteliers face in turning a former correctional facility into a place of comfort and leisure is one of taste. “We had to find the right line between what our guests might consider fun—and what they might see as macabre,” says Stuart Meyerson, general Manager of the Liberty Hotel in Boston, a gorgeous new 298-room hotel built in and around the historic Charles Street Jail in Beacon Hill. Opened in September 2007 after a $150 million renovation, 18 of its rooms are set within the high granite walls of the 1851-built main prison, which has as its centerpiece a towering light-filled 90-foot-high lobby rotunda. A modern tapas restaurant, Clink, is situated in the lobby next to one jail cell; and the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame bar, right under the soaring rotunda, serves some of the finest champagnes in the world.

“Fortunately,” says Meyerson, “we were lucky in that unlike many prisons, the original building was beautiful in its own right.” Boston granite architect Gridley James Fox Bryant designed it in the 1840s and enlisted the help of liberal penal reformer Louis Dwight, who wanted the prison to be filled with light and fresh air and have large cells. The jail did not always live up to these lofty intentions—inmates revolted against terrible conditions in 1973, and it was finally closed in 1990—but the new look would no doubt appeal to its creators.

While the Liberty is nothing if not tasteful, not all guests would say the same about certain other jail hotels. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, given its totalitarian past, Eastern Europe does a good trade in the genre. Take the Karosta Prison in Liepaja, Latvia, a former navy prison for mutinous sailors during the Czar’s time that came under KGB management in the 1970s. The Latvians now use it as an “interactive” jail hotel to replicate that good old KGB-era experience. For less than $20 a night, guests sleep on real prison benches and are abused by prison guards speaking Russian. Their motto is “Unfriendly, unheated, uncomfortable”—and they live up to it.

To find one of Europe’s classiest prison hotels, you must cross the Baltic to Helsinki, Finland, and check into Hotel Katajanokka, a tall red-brick structure on a narrow peninsula close to the domed Uspenski Cathedral in the center of the city. This was the Helsinki county prison for 150 years until it closed down in 2002; it’s now a 102-room boutique inn run by Best Western, with a swish bare-brick restaurant called Jailbird. Which room to book? Ask for the private cell where former Finnish president Risto Ryti was jailed by the Soviets at the end of World War Two.