The Notorious B 'n' B: Infamous Historic Buildings That Are Now Hotels
You can’t blame a building for whatever shady, salacious, or downright gruesome dealings go down there. So why let a little mayhem scratch places off travel itineraries? The opposite happened with these nine homes, jails, courthouses, and other sites where notorious events took place. Each one is now a hotel—intriguing places to stay for vacationers who welcome the chance to check in somewhere with a checkered past.
Italian fashion icon Gianni Versace bought 1116 Ocean Dr. in South Beach in 1992 and spent more than $30 million sprucing up the already impressive mansion. (It was built in 1930 by an heir to the Standard Oil fortune.) Versace’s additions included a new wing, lush gardens, and a 54-foot-long pool lined with 24-karat gold tiles. Five years later, the famed designer was shot to death by serial killer Andrew Cunanan on the home's front steps—events that were the subject of the second season of FX’s American Crime Story, for which some scenes were shot onsite. Today, the Villa Casa Casuarina, as it’s known, is a luxury boutique hotel with 10 opulent suites featuring Italian marble bathrooms and a more-is-more design scheme that might be dubbed “Florida rococo.” The hotel has an Italian restaurant named Gianni’s in honor of the house’s most famous owner, and the prodigious nightlife of South Beach is just steps away.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, a steady parade of rock stars that would have been the envy of any concert promoter passed through the old Marlborough Street Magistrates Court (19-21 Great Marlborough St.) near London’s Oxford Circus. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten all faced charges here (drugs, drugs, exhibiting lewd artwork, and drugs, respectively). Even before the 20th century got going, the courthouse was where early proceedings took place in the first trial involving Oscar Wilde, the playwright and proto-rock star who brought libel charges against the Marquess of Queensberry for intimating that Wilde had engaged in then-criminal homosexual conduct—a disastrous prosecution that backfired for Wilde, since he had. Now transformed into the sleek Courthouse Hotel (the lobby is pictured above), the building retains some vestiges of its jurisprudential past in the form of iron bars and courtly woodwork that can be spotted here and there. One of the hotel’s restaurants, Silk, centers on the original oak-paneled judge’s bench, dock, and witness stand.
That’s right: You can get 40 winks where somebody gave the Bordens 40 whacks. The modest two-story home at 230 Second St. in Fall River, Massachusetts, where Andrew and Abby Borden were butchered with an ax on August 4, 1892—still-unsolved crimes for which Andrew’s grown daughter, Lizzie, was arrested, tried, and acquitted—has been a museum and inn since 1996. Replicas of the family’s furnishings recreate the home’s austere Victorian atmosphere familiar from the famous crime scene photos, and overnighters can even sleep (or try to) in the very bedroom where Abby was murdered (Lizzie's room is pictured above). Considered a hotbed of paranormal activity, the B&B welcomes spectral interactions with ghost tours, psychic readings, and other spooky events.
As the head of the Colombian Medellín Cartel, “King of Cocaine” Pablo Escobar had a very lucrative, very violent run in the 1980s, before he was killed in a shootout with police in 1993 (all of which was dramatized in the Netflix series Narcos). But you might never guess the gory side of his business at his beachside retreat in Tulum on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the presiding aura is a kind of breezy elegance. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the 35-room property was renovated and transformed into the Casa Malca, a boutique hotel owned by Lio Lamca, an art dealer based in New York. Contemporary art from Lamca’s own collection fills the place, which also has a pool, rooftop deck, and restaurant.
From 1851 to 1990, a surprising number of high-profile inmates were held at one time or another at Boston’s Charles Street Jail (215 Charles St.). Among them were civil rights leader Malcolm X, accused anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and even German prisoners during World War II. By 1973, the jail was so overcrowded that prisoners’ constitutional rights were being violated, according to the courts—and yet still the lockup stayed open another 17 years. Following a multimillion-dollar rehab, the building reopened in 2007 as hip, luxury lodgings ironically dubbed the Liberty Hotel. Despite the overhaul, many original features remain, including a show-stopping 90-foot central rotunda lined with guest rooms where blocks of cells used to be. References to the building’s past include key-themed artwork and bars named Alibi and Clink.
Can we interest you in bedding down in one of the most radioactive spots on earth? Backed by the Ukrainian government and housed in a former Soviet dormitory, the 100-bed Chernobyl Hostel Polissya is located in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a 1,000-square-mile area contaminated in the 1986 nuclear power-plant disaster. Access to the region remains restricted—visitors have to be on organized tours, submit to screenings, and can stay for only short periods. But regional tours, which usually set out from Kiev, are gaining in popularity for the chance to see Soviet towns frozen in time. In the abandoned city of Pripyat, for instance, empty streets pass forsaken office buildings and a never-used amusement park (pictured above) that was supposed to open four days after the Chernobyl accident. The hostel is located just 9 miles from the site of the disaster.
The luxe Casa del Mar (1910 Ocean Way) occupies some prime oceanfront real estate just south of the famed Santa Monica Pier. The 1926 building was extensively—and expensively—renovated in the early 2000s to recapture its Jazz Age heyday, when the beach club was a pleasure palace for the Hollywood elite. But there’s a chapter in the Casa del Mar’s history that the current owners would probably prefer you skim past. Starting in the late ‘60s, the place was owned by a vicious cult. Originally founded as a drug rehab program, Synanon (later the Church of Synanon) grew increasingly controlling of members’ lives, forcing women to shave their heads and men to get vasectomies, among other, more serious charges such as attempted murder and tax evasion, which ultimately led to the group’s demise in 1991. The Casa del Mar was one of Synanon’s facilities, where members were typically broken down in brutal truth-telling exercises. Now hotel guests in those same rooms savor stunning Pacific views and relax amid cushy furnishings in soothing shades of cream, sea foam, and robin-egg blue.
At the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, few traces of the building’s origins as a prison for political dissidents remain. Maybe if you squint you can imagine the verdant central courtyard in its original guise as the exercise yard, but the flawless service and plush furnishings you’ll find in the 65 rooms today make it almost impossible to remember they were once cells. (American Billy Hayes, whose nightmarish ordeal in Turkish prisons was documented in the book and controversial film Midnight Express, spent a single night here, before he was sent to the city’s Sağmalcılar Prison, where he did most of his time for smuggling hashish.) The hotel’s location couldn’t be better—the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are almost next-door neighbors.
In Sicily, the homes of several crime bosses have been seized by the government and turned over to municipalities to run as B&Bs. Agriturismo Portella della Ginestra in northern Sicily, for instance, comprises a 17th-century two-story villa and acres of Jato Valley farmland once belonging to the merciless Brusca family. Its patriarch, Bernardo, and scion, Giovanni, are responsible for a chilling litany of crimes, including the murder of a Mafia informer’s 11-year-old child. But today, the getaway where the Bruscas plotted has been transformed into a rustic idyll, where guests can look out on lush fields from one of three farmhouse rooms and sample hearty pastas and other dishes made with ingredients grown on the premises. Metaphors for renewal in the aftermath of destruction aren’t hard to come by.