A Second Chance at Rehabilitation: Salem’s Old Jail Comes to Life

Posted on: October 29th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

This is the latest in a series of posts celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) by sharing some of its biggest successes.

Written by Erica Stewart

The Old Salem Jail, before restoration.

The Old Salem Jail, before restoration.

Say “Salem, Massachusetts,” and of course, the Salem Witch Trials springs to mind. There are ample reasons to think Salem might have some wronged spirits still haunting the place. And among those inclined to think so, the Old Salem Jail had the reputation for being one of the most haunted sites in town. But now, thanks to a $10.7 million historic rehabilitation, the jail site is now synonymous with 50 St. Peter Street, an award-winning complex of 23 upscale apartments, a restaurant, and a museum that immortalizes the jail’s history and its imposing architectural impact.

Originally built in 1813, the hulking granite main jail building held 100 cells and witnessed 50 hangings under its roof. The jail is joined by a Federal-style jail master’s house, a wooden carriage house, and the Howard Cemetery, scene of many executions, including one famous one. Amid complaints of crowding and small cells, a federal judge closed the jail in 1991, ruling it unfit for human habitation. It was the oldest continually operating jail in the country at the time. The site was given to the city of Salem in 1999 and an RFP process began but no qualified bids were received. Ultimately, the Redevelopment Authority took ownership and awarded developer, New Boston Ventures the right to develop the site in 2006.

Envisioning high-end apartments in a jail that had been left abandoned for two decades amid aggressive weeds and barbed wire fences was ambitious, but actually pulling off the transformation was bolder still. The project was beset by numerous challenges, not the least of which was the bottom falling out of the economy in 2008.

“We had so many things happen that I think would have scared off a lot of people,” said David Goldman, founder of New Boston Ventures, the developer that invested in the renovation. “The economy alone, I think a lot of people thought we were crazy at different points during the project.”

The Old Salem Jail, after restoration.

The Old Salem Jail, after restoration.

That poor economy led Goldman to change development plans midstream, dropping the for-sale condominium idea in favor of marketing the units as rental housing for at least five years, which would enable the project to qualify for federal historic tax credits. The tax credit represented a significant equity infusion once an investor was found for the credit, a transaction that was brokered by the National Trust Community Investment Corporation. The result was $2.3 million in essential cash to the project during construction.
Goldman also enjoyed the unwavering support of the Mayor’s Office, the jail’s neighbors, and the citizens of Salem. Mayor Kim Driscoll shared his belief that the rehabilitation of the jail was a major opportunity for Salem, and that it had to be done right. Goldman worked hard to make sure the site bore the stamp of its history, and was not some “vanilla” apartment complex that was devoid of the significance of its surroundings.

The developer has certainly succeeded in avoiding a cookie-cutter luxury development. The rehab created 23 units of housing in three structures: the 1813 building, the jail master’s house and a new building that replaced the unsalvageable carriage house. The original jail house units enjoy high ceilings, 14-foot windows, and walls of exposed brick and granite. Outside of each unit’s entry door hangs one of the jail’s original cell doors. The old granite jail floor was reused as landscape pavers for the outdoor courtyard. The spiral staircase that led up to the catwalk of the second floor jail cells remains.

The residents will not be the only ones privy to a glimpse of the jail’s inglorious history. The historical material that was not reused as part of the rehab will be on display in a public museum that will be open seven days a week on the site. Exhibits will include artifacts in a typical jail cell and an interpretation of the jail’s place in Salem’s history and some of its more notable inmates, including Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler.

The public will also be able to behold elements of the jail at a new restaurant planned for the ground floor of the original 1813 jail wing. Aptly named The Great Escape, the space, incorporates old jail cell doors and other historical décor throughout the dining area, in addition to its hardwood floors, granite countertops and exotic marble.

Space in the complex has also been reserved for use as an artist studio and gallery, available for an affordable rent, and which will offer a rotating roster of artists the opportunity to showcase their work.

Inside the restored jail.

Inside the restored jail.

Goldman’s vision is definitely paying off. Approximately 3,000 people attended the project’s open house, and apparently, the visitors liked what they saw. Within a little more than a week, 19 of the 23 available units had been leased and are now generating income.
“The response from the community has been absolutely phenomenal,” said realtor Betsy Merry, who has worked with Goldman to rent out the units. “It’s a personal success for David and New Boston Ventures obviously, but I think it’s a huge success for the city of Salem and its residents, too. It’s just an absolutely beautiful building and really adds to the beautification and history of Salem.”
There is more good news for the lucky ones now calling the Old Salem Jail their home. If in five years, units are converted to for-sale condos, the current residents will have the right of first refusal to purchase their unit, and rent they’ve already paid will be applied to the purchase price.

With a project this sound, it’s hard to imagine a better second chance for the Old Salem Jail. It effortlessly manages to blend new contemporary uses with the historic fabric of the site, preserving the stories embodied in its walls for generations. Now let’s just hope, for the sake of those new residents, those walls truly can’t talk...

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.