NEWPORT, R.I. -- Every time we drive past the plodding metamorphosis of Boston's Charles Street Jail into a luxury hotel, the irony seems inescapable. How can the clink go swank? So we decided to visit Newport's old jail, reincarnated as a historic inn, to see if buildings, like crooks, can be rehabilitated.
When we climbed the steep granite steps and entered the lobby of the Jailhouse Inn, the desk clerk greeted us from behind bars. ''I'm so used to them, I don't even notice until someone says, 'Look at that,' " she said with a shrug. ''We have jail doors all over." She led us to the breakfast room off the lobby and swung the heavy metal grille open and shut. ''People take photos behind the bars and try to shove their heads through."
A handout at the front desk documents the building's long association with lawbreakers. According to the Newport Historical Society, the city jail was built in 1772, enlarged in 1800, and renovated in Greek Revival style in 1888. Although ''never considered a particularly strong place" (according to a 19th-century Newport newspaper report), it served as police headquarters until 1986, when the cops moved and the transformation to hostelry began.
The inn wears its history lightly. Walls sport old speed limit signs and faded posters of storied villains: ''Women in Life of John Dillinger," ''Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch," ''Chicago Gangsters Public Enemies No. 1." Newport's most notorious prisoner was probably a mason in the mid-19th century who escaped by removing bricks from around a window. Alas for him, it was winter and his footsteps in the snow revealed that he was holed up in a nearby hotel.
Our ''cell" was on the second floor in Cell Block B. The theme was starting to wear a little thin until we opened the door to a tastefully decorated large corner room. The campaign-style mahogany furniture with brass handles included a low dresser (with TV on top), writing desk, and bedside tables. The headboard on the queen bed combined mahogany with rattan inserts. White walls and fabrics in pale shades of beige, blue, and green created a soothing atmosphere, best appreciated from the deep armchair with ottoman.
A big closet was equipped with shelves and a mini refrigerator. The small bathroom had a pedestal sink and tub/shower combination. The black-and-white-striped shower curtain did conjure images of chain gang garb -- a subtle reminder that former ''guests" in the basement cells were not treated to Gilchrist & Soames toiletries. The white-painted brick facade and columned portico help the boxy old building fit into its historic Washington Square neighborhood. It's a two-block walk to the Gateway Visitors Center at the north end of the shopping and entertainment district along Thames Street and America's Cup Avenue.
The inn's two-night Getaway Packages often include a dinner at Le Bistro on Bowen's Wharf, so we decided to give it a try. The restaurant's second-floor perch affords a west-facing view, perfect for catching a slice of sunset over the harbor. (Reserve a window table.)
As the name suggests, Le Bistro is both casual and nominally French. One of us opted for the house specialty bouillabaisse. It didn't exactly sing ''La Marseillaise," but it was a pleasant New England fish soup. The chicken breast stuffed with spinach and prosciutto and finished in a Vermont chevre sauce actually rang more true to the old country. On request, the kitchen substituted the signature hand-cut, twice-cooked French fries for wild rice. As we made our way back to the Jailhouse, a sliver of moon dipped into the horizon's last glow.
Despite the cell doors, the breakfast room was bright and cheery in the morning. Guests helped themselves to packaged pastries, bread, bagels, granola, toaster waffles, hard-boiled eggs, ham, yogurt, juice, and coffee and tea. We considered ignoring the sign that reminded guests to bus their tables . . . but what if we got tossed in the clink for a night? Unlike those occupants from another era, we were sorry to leave.
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers in Cambridge, at email@example.com.