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In The Clink

January 9, 2008

American Airlines' in-flight magazine has a slightly alarming article in it this month. It's an innocuous travel piece about luxury hotels. What's weird about it is that the hotels featured in the story were once prisons.

The Malmaison Oxford in the UK (starting at $290 a night for a room) is a converted 19th century jailhouse that still held prisoners until 1996. The rooms (once cells) are "small" and have flat screen TVs and views of the yard where the inmates once exercised. The former visitors' room is now a cocktail lounge. The Charles Street Jail in Boston once held anarchists like Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Venzetti, as well as Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo. Today it's the 300-room, ironically named Liberty Hotel ($250 min. a night.) Some of the windows still have bars on them and the restaurant is called The Clink. Basel, Switzerland is home to the Hotel au Violon (prices starting at $115 a night). The building served as the city's prison from 1835 to 1995. The hotel boasts spacious rooms and "Shaker-style" furniture and the restaurant is situated in what was once the prison's police station. The fourth hotel featured in the story is the Four Seasons in Istanbul at Sultanahmet (rooms cost a criminal $320 a night). The prison was renowned for holding antigovernment dissenters but now it's well known for high-end spa treatments and afternoon tea. The final hotel in the article is in San Antonio, Texas and located in the 19th century Bexar County Jail. The Comfort Inn Alamo/Riverwalk (a steal, forgive the pun, at $99 a night) doesn't show many signs of its grizzly past. The write-up breezily says, "thankfully, the eerie, three-story chute known as the hanging room has been sealed from view."

I'm all for repurposing old buildings rather than knocking them down. But there's something that feels creepy about the idea of people having a whale of a time in a place where other people once did time.

The article ironically also makes me think about the opposite kind of hotel: all those inner-city buildings in the U.S. that call themselves "hotels" but are really more like prisons. I'm talking about the squat, grimy-signed buildings in neighborhoods like San Francisco's Mission District, which advertise themselves as offering "hourly, weekly or monthly" accommodations. They're the kinds of places where heroin addicts go to lock themselves away while going cold turkey and where mad husbands shut up their children and wives.

Perhaps these old prison buildings should be put to other uses. But what? Museums? Not every old jail has the same mythological quality as Alcatraz so they can't all be turned into tourist attractions. Schools? I wouldn't want to learn trigonometry in a converted prison mess hall; doesn't seem like a space to set a good moral example to young minds. Shopping Malls? Hmm...

Still, there's a kind of ring to the saying, "fancy a drink in the Clink?"


  • I went to Prague right after the Velvet Revolution. Many thought Prague was poised to become the cultural capital of Europe then. But to me the city seemed full throttle 24/7 in its assimilation into the west. One tour pointed out how President Havel’s old cell had almost immediately become part of the hotel Pension Unitas. That seemed emblematic of the city to me, more interested in its new freedom and capital than art or culture.

    By Blogger Nick , At January 9, 2008 at 4:32 PM  

  • Maybe the old buildings could be renovated as low-cost housing! Do we really need another gimmicky-luxury hotel?

    By Blogger Kristin Tieche, At January 9, 2008 at 6:02 PM  

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