How a British prison is becoming a destination hotel

Bodmin Jail—or Gaol—was built on Britain's Cornish coast during the American Revolution, but has been empty since 1927. More than 90 years later, Twelve Architects is turning the historic site into a hotel, museum and—perhaps most intriguingly—a bat sanctuary.

Work on the £30-million project will begin in the third quarter of the year, with the project due for completion in 2019.

The London-based studio was commissioned by Mallino Development to transform British engineer John Call's original 18th-century design into a destination accommodation for Interstate Europe Hotels. The firm plans to completely turn the two wings of historic cell blocks into 63 guestrooms. Twelve Architects is working with museum consultant Sarner International, engineer Arup, and project-management firm Turner & Townsend.

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Gaol Cells to Guestrooms

Working with the existing structure of the Grade II-listed building, each guestroom will be created from three cells, with the interiors displaying colors and textures inspired by the aged, weathered stone. Both wings will have a glazed skylight to create a central atrium that will maintain the natural lighting. An external lift and core, both clad in charred timber, will be added to improve circulation.

The existing Governor’s Hall will remain as the main venue and restaurant space, but will be refurbished and upgraded.

As part of the renovation work, the complex will get a new 12,917-square-foot building housing an attraction called “Dark Walk.” Created from a sequence of themed rooms containing sets, films and projections, the space is designed to immerse visitors in the history of the area and allow them to experience the life of the jail’s 18th- and 19th-century inmates. The jail has a reputation as one of the most haunted place in the country, possibly due to the 50 public executions that took place there. The original hangman's noose will be on display.

Matt Cartwright, a founding director of Twelve Architects, told the Telegraph that the redevelopment was an “incredible opportunity” to restore and rejuvenate a part of British history. “The introduction of a new state-of-the-art attraction and hotel alongside facilities for education will provide a much-needed boost for the local economy, creating jobs and bringing visitors to the town,” he said. “It's an extremely challenging project, working with an existing building in which the walls are up to a meter thick in some places. There aren't that many places in which people will have the opportunity to sleep in a former cell, and our design combines keeping the historic feel of the place with the comfort you'd expect in a hotel.” 

According to the design team, the new structure will use stone gabions—a mesh of stainless steel cages containing hand-laid stones from a quarry situated on the same rock seam as was used for the original building. Across the building, a pattern of gabions sitting in front of and behind the facades will break up the massing and echo the fenestration of the jail building.

There will also be a purpose-built £95,000 “bat bungalow” and a £7,500 warm loft house on the hotel grounds to protect the bats residing on site. Bodmin Jail is home to seven of Britain’s 17 species of bats.

Photo credit: Twelve Architects