Late last month, the American Institute of Architects recognized the rehabilitated and reconstituted old Salem Jail with a prestigious Housing Award. In recognizing the architects (Finegold Alexander + Associates) and their developer clients (New Boston Ventures) the jury noted that there is such a strength in the conversion-through the beautiful historic adaptation, the buildings’ purpose has also been transformed from negative to positive. Below, the “before and after” shots illustrate the aesthetic transformation from negative to positive quite well.
The transformation of the 1813 prison complex, which had languished in an increasingly deteriorating state in a prominent location for almost two decades, has been a remarkable addition to the Salem streetscape. When it was shuttered by a judge’s ruling (that it was unfit for human habitation) in 1991, the Jail was the oldest continually operating house of correction in the country. After its closure, the state mothballed the complex, which included not only the three-story 100-cell jail, but also a stately brick jail keeper’s house (attributed alternatively to both Samuel McIntire and his son Samuel Field McIntire), and a wooden carriage house. A 1908 photograph and 1930s postcard show the complex in its (verdant) functioning days.
After a decade of deterioration and a fire which severely damaged the Jail Keeper’s house in 1999, efforts intensified to find a new purpose for the jail complex. Historic Salem, Inc., along with other preservation organizations, was a key player in bringing about the transfer of the property from the state to the city of Salem along with a preservation mandate, which enabled the Salem Redevelopment Authority to move forward with a formal request for proposals. Once the New Boston plan, which called for a mixed-use redevelopment of the complex with luxury condominiums, exhibit and studio space, and a restaurant, got underway, the economy promptly tanked and consequently concessionary changes were made. To take advantage of existing federal tax initiatives, the proposed condominiums were replaced with 23 apartments (all of which will be eligible for condo conversion in five years) and a restaurant tenant was finally located after a series of false starts. This past summer, all of the complex’s apartments were leased within weeks of its completion, and The Great Escape (of course) opened in the early fall. This storied site (ironically just across the way from the former site of the Parker Brothers’ Factory) now functions as an impressive but much less intimidating gateway into Salem from the north.