Closed since 1991, the decrepit jailhouse in Salem, Mass., had become a vacant eyesore—one that was highly visible to anyone entering the historic city, known more for its infamous 17th-century witch trials than for incarcerating criminals.

Because of its downtown location, proximity to public transportation, and designation as a national historic landmark, the 1813 jail, said to be the oldest continuously operating such facility in the country, was a priority among the city’s leaders, who were eager to save and adapt the facility after assuming its ownership from the state. Yet the building’s downtrodden condition and the potential cost to rehab it deterred developers from responding to the city’s request for proposal (RFP) for a mixed-use project in 1995. The structure remained vacant, falling into even greater disrepair. By the time the city put out another RFP a decade later, downtown Salem was thriving, with its waterfront under redevelopment and high-end residential properties becoming more widely available. Suddenly, multiple bidders emerged to renovate the 19th-century space.

Boston-based development firm New Boston Ventures (NBV), experts in historic renovation and condo conversions, won the contract, in large part because of the company’s desire to include a restaurant and small exhibit space inviting public use, says David L. Goldman, a firm principal. NBV’s proposal, in collaboration with Boston architects Finegold Alexander + Associates, also schooled in adaptive reuse and historic preservation, showcased how the complex could be transformed into 19 unique condos, plus public spaces in the jail; another three condos in the separate, jail keeper’s Federal-style brick home; and a fourth condo in a new carriage house, built where an original one had stood before it was vandalized and burned down.

Change of Direction

Four years after starting its efforts in 2005, NBV bought the complex for $100,000. But with the subsequent downturn in the economy, the firm considered different options and sought the advice of Epsilon Associates, an environmental and consulting firm in Maynard, Mass., that had expertise in securing historic tax credits to pare rehabilitation costs.

A decision to switch the condos to rentals enabled NBV to secure the alternative financing at both the federal and state levels. Approval was granted in fall 2010, and the developers gained the maximum advantage of 20 percent from the federal government and 20 percent from the state, says Doug Kelleher, senior consultant at Epsilon. “I think the Massachusetts Historical Commission recognized that this was a very difficult building to redevelop and [still] retain its historic character,” says Kelleher, who took charge and had a personal mission to fulfill as well. “I live in Salem, and I loved the idea of repurposing the jail, which is so prominent,” he says.

Additional hurdles emerged, however. The poor condition of the building required the architects to insert a steel frame within the structure to support the switch from tiny jail cells to soaring apartments with 9- to 14-foot–high ceilings and 12- to 14-foot–high windows, says Dan Ricciarelli, project manager at Finegold, who also lives in Salem. The old attic was also turned into additional living spaces, with a light-admitting cupola, and the basement gained living quarters and a restaurant.

Because of the building’s historic status, the development/design team was required to preserve as many materials and details as possible yet keep the structure within the concept of a 21st-century residential complex. “We immediately looked at items that resonate with people today—huge, thick, granite blocks used to build the building and pave the original floors, for example—and how we could reuse them on the terraces and landscaped areas,” says Finegold principal Jim Alexander.

Similarly, to retain the character of the jail, the team decided to reuse the cell doors as accents on corridor walls next to the apartment entrances. “It seemed a reasonable reminder of the echoes of the jail’s history,” Alexander says. There are also original brick walls that were tuckpointed and painted. And new elements were inserted where needed, such as new windows in original openings and a portico based on original photos and fragments found on the site. Sustainable features, another goal, range from natural-gas heating and cooling systems to double-insulated, low-E glass panes and Energy Star appliances.

The restaurant, cleverly dubbed The Great Escape and located at the bottom level of the jail, includes a bar made from recycled cell doors, jail-inspired artwork on the walls, and a menu with items that play up the jail motif, such as “Lock Up” and “Alcatraz” chicken breasts. The outdoor design, by Salem, Mass., firm Gray Architects, features drop-off access, good pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and permeable hardscaping. The total rehab cost came in at the developer’s estimate of $10.5 million.

More good news followed. An open house in 2010 when 50 percent of the work had been completed attracted 4,000 people to see the remodeled jail. After leasing began, in the fall of that same year, all 23 units were spoken for within three months.

Treasured Landmark

When the tax credits expire come fall 2015, the units may be returned to condos or kept as rentals. “We’ll wait for the market to speak,” says NBV’s Goldman. More units may also be constructed when the economy rebounds, he says.

Everyone is delighted with the aesthetic results, but the change did far more than beautify an old eyesore. The rehab instilled pride throughout the community, including bringing back a group of former jailers who celebrated over dinner at the restaurant. “Before, you had this abandoned building with barbed wire, and now you have this amazing landmark preserved to the highest standards that is contributing aesthetically to its neighborhood,” says Epsilon’s Kelleher.

Salem mayor Kim Driscoll is equally effusive. “The preserved jail was a blighted, underutilized site, but everyone involved had a can-do attitude, and this became the little engine that could with so many fits and stops before it was done. It’s become a treasure to our city and shows how a city or town can work with developers to keep important buildings intact and meet the new needs of residents, businesses, and the community.”

A long list of awards reflects the project’s widespread success, including recognition by the National Housing and Rehabilitation Association, the American Institute of ­Architects, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Barbara Ballinger is a contributing writer who focuses on real estate and design.