Nov 172011

November 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
Feature: Project Profile


From Ghoulish To Glorious

The Historic Restoration of the Old Salem Jail


On a crisp, Sunday morning in March 2010, a long line of visitors gathered outside the latest development project of Boston-based developer New Boston Ventures. It was the project’s first open house, and the mood that day was electric. Organizers had scheduled the event to start at 10:00 a.m., and yet long before the doors had opened, the line had swollen to well over 100 feet long and two to three people thick. It was as if those waiting were “queuing up to see a prestigious show,” wrote one attendee at the event. And the line kept growing. Over the next few hours, an estimated 3,000 people toured the project, nearly all of whom, oddly enough, had no interest in renting one of the 23 available units.

The project, the adaptive reuse and historic restoration of the Old Salem Jail in Salem, Massachusetts, had captured the imagination of nearly everyone in and around the city. Built in 1813 and added onto in 1884, the jail had been in continuous operation for 175 years, making it the oldest in the country. Its main building, the jail house, is an imposing granite and brick building, four stories tall with two spire-like cupolas that rise 20 feet or so above the ridge. A second building, the jail-keeper’s house, is a long, slender, four-story brick building that stands in front of, and perpendicular to the jail house, forming the second side of an L-shaped courtyard. The jail’s third and final building, the carriage house, is a small, barn-like structure adjacent to the jail-keeper’s house, on the southeast corner of the property.

The jail had once been an economic boon for the city of Salem, but in 1991, a federal judge declared it uninhabitable and the prison was soon abandoned. The chain-link fence and razor remained in place, but offered little deterrent to the curious. Vandals broke in, smashed windows and painted graffiti on the walls. The yard grew thick with weeds and litter. In 1999, a fire gutted the jail-keeper’s house, destroying a wood addition and leaving much of the exterior brick blackened with soot. To ghost hunters and thrill seekers, the prison’s slow moldering into ruin only increased its appeal—the property made all the more haunting by the historic Howard Street Cemetery that borders it to the rear. The city of Salem didn’t share this affection. The prison had become a blight on the community. The buildings, added to the National and State Register of Historic Places in 1976, couldn’t be demolished, and yet repeated attempts to attract a developer failed to take hold. When, in 2000, the city bought the property from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a whopping $1.00, then Salem Mayor Stanley Usovicz reportedly joked, “I think I paid too much.”

The city again issued and RFP for the jail’s redevelopment in early 2006, and that is when Finegold Alexander + Associates (FA+A) and New Boston Ventures got involved. Jim Alexander, the project’s lead architect and a principle with FA+A, is a bit of an adaptive-reuse celebrity in the area, and the two firms worked together often. “Several of our architects live in Salem,” Alexander explains, “and so we saw the notice early on and brought it to the developer.” The site itself is a prime piece of real estate: 1.04 acres, just blocks from downtown, the train station and the water, and only 45 minutes from Boston. The team’s plan was to convert the buildings into high-end condominiums, along with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant (now the Great Escape Restaurant) on the ground floor of the 1884 addition.

The preliminary bid-work and city approval process then took the next two years to complete. There were no plans to draw from, and so in December 2006, Alexander and his associates entered the buildings to take measurements. The fire had mostly destroyed the jail-keeper’s house, leaving only the shell and remnants of the floor structure, spiral staircases and wooden mantel pieces that once defined its interior. The coach house, built of timber frame and wood siding, had rotted through and would be torn down and replicated. But the jail house itself was altogether different. Four floors of masonry and steel cell blocks filled the building’s central cavity, from basement to roofline, with catwalks and cast-iron staircases that led from one floor to the next. Massive slate and granite slabs made up the floors. Large flecks of lead paint peeled from the ceilings and walls. The place was a horror story and would have to be gutted completely.

New Boston Ventures agreed to buy the property for $100,000, and the project continued to progress until 2008 and the crash of the U.S. housing market. The market for condos had withered almost overnight, and New Boston now faced a finance market that had dried to a trickle. Again, FA+A presented a solution. “After the market crashed,” Alexander explains, “it was decided that the original scheme was not going to work.” The solution: reconfigure the project to make it eligible for federal and state incentives. Alexander calls these projects “Tax-Act” projects, referring to the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program administered by the National Park Service. The program provides a 20%-of-cost tax rebate on historic restorations. Massachusetts has a similar program, the Massachusetts Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, administered by the Massachusetts Historic Commission, which also provided a 20% tax incentive. All told, New Boston was able to reduce its estimated cost of roughly $10 million by a game-saving 40%, or $3.9 million.

“Of course, in exchange for that,” notes Alexander, “we had to do certain things in the preservation of the buildings, [and] we had to negotiate that with the National Park Service. If you are just working on a historic building, [there are] certain local historic guidelines, and you can’t tear it down. But a lot of times there aren’t a lot of other rules. There aren’t the same kind of requirements you have when you are getting tax credits and using federal money.”

One of the key changes New Boston had to agree to was to convert the project from condos into apartments and to maintain the property as rental units for at least five years. In addition, FA+A eliminated plans for balconies and raised terraces that would have obscured the buildings’ facades. The Park Service also required, among other things, that more of the building’s historical fabric be retained and that a display of its history be available to the public. To this end, workers stripped and restored one of the ornate cast iron staircases on the east end of the building and left intact (and open to the public) two of the original cells [pictured above]. New Boston also chose, as an added touch, to bolt an original cell door next to each of the apartment entrances. “It gives people something to talk about,” Alexander says.

Work on the project began in May 2009, with Boston-based Metric Construction serving as the general contractor. Bob Puracchio, the project executive with Metric, recalls the complexity of gutting the old jail. Crews first spent nearly a month cleaning the interior of lead paint, scrubbing and scraping by hand to protect the brick and mortar and removing an estimated 30 drums of chips. Then came the dismantling of the cells. The cell block masonry supported the roof framing, and so before the cells could be removed, workers had to cut through the roof, insert steel beams across the building and construct massive trusses up inside the jail’s attic. Once completed, workers could then dismantle the cell blocks, brick by brick, down through the center of the building. “At one point,” Puracchio recalls, “we had totally gutted it out and had only this big cavernous expanse of nothing but the exterior granite walls.”

Another “magic of restoration” detail for Puracchio was the re-creation of the historic chimneys on the jail-keeper’s house. The interior renovation of the building had removed the interior substructure of the chimneys, and the challenge was to support the new, replicated chimneys without this foundation. Rather than build massive supports in the attic, Puracchio explains, the engineers instead chose to fake it in. From the outside, the chimneys look authentic, but are actually only hollow shells, constructed of plywood and encased in a half-inch thick brick veneer. “When you do this a lot, as we do,” Puracchio says, “you come up with fairly crafty ways of making things look authentic.”

All told, the jail’s renovation includes 23 units. Apartments in the jail house range from a 551-square-foot one-bedroom up to a 2,621-square-foot penthouse. There are now three, 1,700-square-foot townhouses in the jail-keeper’s house and a detached, two-bedroom home in the re-built carriage house. “The idea was to provide as many options of housing as we could to just cover the market,” Alexander says.

New Boston Ventures and Finegold Alexander are also currently working through plans for a fourth building that will measure 21,000 square-feet (including underground parking), add 13 new units and close off the third side of the central courtyard. The success of the project, notes Alexander, has been remarkably impressive. The community is thrilled. A blight is removed. And back in March 2010, after that first open house, it took less than a week to fill nearly all of the available units. “I’ve got to give Metric a lot of credit,” Alexander says. “They did a terrific job.”