When the imposing gray granite building on the edge of Beacon Hill in Boston served as the Charles Street Jail, it held infamous inmates like anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, future mayor James Curley, and Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark and houses the 300-room Liberty Hotel (http://www.libertyhotel.com, doubles from $250). Many of the prison’s original elements remain, including a 90-foothigh rotunda and cupola, sky-high catwalks where guards once kept watch, and bars on some of the windows. And you have to love the whimsical names of the public spaces — the restaurant is called the Clink, and the bar is Alibi. Need privacy? Simply hang the “Solitary” sign.
In Basel Switzerland the Hotel au Violon (www.au-violon.com , doubles from $115) is perched on a small bluff in a historic fifteenth-century building that served as the city’s prison from 1835 to 1995. Now the structure is the home of a stylish hotel whose rooms overlook either the inner courtyard or the Old Town The 40 former cells and offices have been transformed into 20 spacious rooms with polished wooden floors and Shaker-style furniture. The hotel’s restaurant, the Brasserie (which is in the room that at one time housed the prison’s police station), offers tasty French-bistro cuisine.
It’s hard to imagine that the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet (www.fourseasons.com/istanbul, doubles from $320), housed in a 100-year-old building in the Old City and within walking distance of landmarks like the multispired Blue Mosque, was once a grim prison. Intellectuals and antigovernment dissenters were among the inmates when it was known as Sultanahmet Prison, but times certainly have changed. These days, guests are pampered with anything-goes service, spa treatments, and even afternoon tea in what was once the prison courtyard.
Though San Antonio’s Comfort Inn Alamo/Riverwalk(http://www.comfortinnsanantonio.com, doubles from $99) is located in the former Bexar County Jail, which dates from 1878, there is little to remind one of its storied past (save the small etched-stone sign with the jail’s name and year hanging on one of the exterior walls). In fact, the building, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, became a file-storage space in the 1960s and wasn’t converted into the 82-room hotel until 2004. Thankfully, the eerie three-story chute known as the hanging room has been sealed from view.
Though the Malmaison Oxford (http://www.malmaison-oxford.com, doubles from $290) is located in a nineteenth-century jail (which actually remained in use and still held prisoners until 1996) in the university town of Oxford England, you’ll hardly be roughing it. Beyond the castlelike facade are contemporary, albeit smallish, rooms (many are converted cells with brick walls) outfitted with flat-screen TVs, down bedding, and views of the courtyard where inmates once exercised. The former Visitors’ Room is now a chic, all-black cocktail lounge where guests can sip martinis and play snooker.