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Thursday, November 7, 2013








ARTICLE: "Doing Soft Time: Former Jails Become Luxury Hotels"

Waiters Take the Place of Prison Guards; Imagine a Weekend Escape to Alcatraz.

Since opening in 1851, Boston's Charles Street Jail has housed the Boston Strangler, the men behind the infamous Brinks Job and a Nazi submarine commander captured in World War II.

Today, as the Liberty Hotel, it welcomes guests paying $400 a night or more for a room and the chance to drink cocktails in a former cell, munch on red snapper behind iron bars and view fashion shows in what was the inmates' exercise room.

"It's pretty unbelievable to think you're paying to stay in a jail," said Vinnie Macri, a guest from Chicago, as he drained his beer and surveyed the beehive of activity in the lobby bar. "But they've done an awesome job."

In an effort to capture the hip, affluent traveler's imagination, developers have reinvented farmhouses, monasteries, caves, even a Boeing 747 jet as chic new lodgings. But the industry's budding global trend is to transform hubs of incarceration into boutique hotels, reveling in the paradox of charging guests to sleep where the original inhabitants dreamed of escape.

In Ljubljana, Slovenia, a former POW camp run by occupying armies during World War II and later by the Communist regime is now a youth hostel where 20 guests bunk behind bars in rooms individually designed by artists. A Helsinki prison, expanded by Tsar Alexander III in the 19th century when Finland was part of the Russian Empire, is now a Best Western, still encircled by the prison's 16-foot-high redbrick walls.

The most radical transformation may be a Four Seasons hotel in a neoclassical Istanbul prison that was depicted in the violent 1978 movie thriller "Midnight Express."

"Nowadays, the former exercise yard is a pleasant courtyard set behind a handsome ocher facade," wrote. "Any sadistic guards have been supplanted by a well-trained, obliging staff."

At least a dozen such conversions dot the globe today. Brokers say more are expected as the concept, already popular in Europe, is just beginning to catch on in the U.S. A Liberty Hotel executive says occupancy rates are now more than 80%, the highest level since the Boston hotel's opening in 2007.

Gary Davis, who oversees a dozen hotels for Malmaison, the U.K. chain of boutique hotels, says a former Oxford, England, prison is one of his biggest earners. He has been hearing from other English towns eager to convert their own jailhouses into lucrative lodgings. "You can get seduced by the fact that it's a great-looking prison," Mr. Davis cautions. "But you got to make sure it works economically."

Hospitality-industry analysts say there are good reasons for these conversions. Since the start of the boutique hotel craze several years ago—responding to young, well-off travelers searching for something less corporate—developers have been pushing boundaries to make their properties edgier and more outrageous in an increasingly crowded field.

Many prisons, meanwhile, are more than a century old and no longer function as intended. Cash-strapped municipal governments would rather sell the properties than spend on upgrades. Yet because many of the buildings feature historic architecture, they can't be torn down, or even altered beyond recognition.

Those hurdles make it even tougher for other kinds of real-estate conversions, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University's hospitality school. "Their distinct designs don't make for very good office buildings or apartments," he says. "Frankly, they don't always make very good hotels, either."

Certainly, there are challenges. Persuading a bank to finance such a project can be difficult and some developers are skittish. Marriott International MAR -1.76% in 2010 beat out rival hotel operators to transform the Sainte-Anne prison in Avignon, France, into a four-star luxury hotel, with conference room, outdoor pool and underground parking.

But the hotel operator abandoned these plans after the downturn. "It did not work out for a variety of reasons," a Marriott spokeswoman said in an email.

After the Jailhouse Inn in Newport, R.I., opened as a 23-room hotel in an 18th-century building that was a jail and police station, people would still wander into the lobby demanding to see the police chief or protesting a traffic ticket, says Tom Glassie, an owner.

Then there are those finicky travelers who are reluctant to sleep somewhere that resembles a house of detention. "Some guests feel a little claustrophobic," says Marylene Knoben, a manager at Het Arresthuis, a 19th-century jail in Roermond, Netherlands, that reopened with cells as rooms in 2011.

Richard Friedman, the hotel developer who led the $150 million conversion of the Liberty Hotel, said some locals complained that it seemed creepy to build a luxury property at a site that was home to violent offenders. So he recruited Tibetan monks to drive out any lingering evil spirits with a fire ritual known as a puja. A concerned neighbor, unaware of the ceremony, called the fire department.

Still, the biggest challenge, he says, "was to preserve the 'jailiness,' " while creating a luxury property." He kept the black steel bars, which are popular photo backdrops. Some cells were absorbed into the lounge known as the Clink, and the guard's catwalk has become a balcony for cocktail parties.

Penitentiary kitsch also abounds at Oxford's Malmaison, where the hotel hawks black-and-white striped pajamas, and cells converted into rooms have windows just 6 inches wide. At Het Arresthuis, color photos of death-row inmates at Louisiana's Angola prison decorate the walls of rooms roughly the size of three combined cells.

Mr. Friedman says that a number of the jail's former employees and even inmates have stayed as Liberty Hotel guests. But not all are ready to revisit. Ricky Auch, now a contractor, says he spent a few weeks in the Charles Street Jail in the early 1990s and later served prison time for bank and armored-truck robbery. He says he has driven past the Liberty Hotel but can't bring himself to go inside. "It's very bizarre," he says, that people spend hundreds of dollars to stay where he saw inmates beat and stab each other.

John Thornton, a business traveler from Chicago, doesn't see it that way. Watching the fashionable crowd passing through the Liberty Hotel lobby one afternoon got him thinking.

"I visited Alcatraz," he says of the famed former prison in San Francisco Bay overlooking the city.

"Would people pay $500 a night to stay there?

I think they would."

Source:   Wall Street Journal

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