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Old Salem Jail Turned Into Bewitching Luxury Apartments

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

For the most part, Salem, Mass., has embraced its wicked past, and locations associated with its 17th-century witch hunts are popular attractions. So it’s no surprise the Old Salem Jail, another site in the city with a sinister past, has become a celebrated residential community and restaurant. But the transition wasn’t easy.

? The reputably haunted correctional facility, which played host to an estimated 50 hangings, has a long history. The granite-walled jail and Federal-style keeper’s house opened in 1813 next to the Howard Street Cemetery, where accused witch Giles Corey was crushed to death in 1692 by the sheriff. (Corey allegedly has cursed every Salem sheriff since.) The jail was expanded in 1885, at which time the signature cupolas were placed on the roof. Magician Harry Houdini staged an escape in 1906, and Albert DeSalvo, more affectionately known as the Boston Strangler, was confined there. In 1984, conditions were so awful inside—inmates still had to use chamber pots for bathrooms—that a few detainees successfully sued the county for inadequate living conditions. A federal judge ordered the jail’s closure seven years later. Until then, it was considered the oldest active penitentiary in the United States.

? For the next two decades, the crumbling complex sat vacant, seemingly destined for demolition. A 1999 fire in the jail keeper’s house further lowered the chances of survival. Still, preservationists recognized the property’s potential and pushed for its reuse. The city of Salem shared their vision and bought the site for one dollar. In 2001, Salem officials sought bids for the facility’s redevelopment. No one responded. They tried again four years later, and this time New Boston Ventures stepped forward with a plan to transform the complex into condominiums, a restaurant, and a museum. Then the recession hit. In response, NBV chose to offer apartments instead of condos to take advantage of the federal preservation tax credit available to historic rental properties. Work finally began on the site, christened 50 St. Peter, in May 2009 and was completed a year later for $10.7M. The 23 homes were quickly rented out.

? The jailhouse’s 19 unique apartments, which range in size from 500 to 2,600 square feet, appear nothing like the miniscule cells they replaced, though architect Finegold Alexander + Associates Inc. did utilize much original material. The one- to three-bedroom homes include the same granite and brick walls that confined inmates for 178 years, and jail doors serve as architectural accents at the entrance to each home. Added to the mix are Energy Star appliances, hardwood floors, and white stone countertops. The prison-themed Great Escape Restaurant is housed in the old jail’s wing, where the original jail bars also act as a design motif.

? The jail keeper’s house has been subdivided into three, 1,700-square-foot apartments, and the reconstructed carriage house has a living unit and a small museum dedicated to the jail’s history. Rents at 50 St. Peter go from $1,200 to $2,600 per month.

? Awards have been heaped on 50 St. Peter for its success in reviving a place seemingly left for dead. The project proves that even buildings with the darkest pasts can be transformed into positive uses. Just beware of the angry spirits.
· 50 St. Peter [official site]
· 50 St. Peter Street [Finegold Alexander + Associates]
· Old Salem Jail rentals thrive; artist's studio, restaurant to follow [Wicked Local]
· Great Escape Restaurant [official site]