In 1843, amidst the hills of Germany’s southern Rhineland, Grand Duke Leopold von Baden built a prison in the city of Offenburg. Accommodating 40 inmates, the failed Baden Revolution stocked it with political radicals in 1949. Whilst the prison was eventually decommissioned, the staid, imposing structure remained, making it an unlikely spot for a luxury hotel - even one as ironically named as the Hotel Liberty. 

A birds-eye view of the lobby from the hotel’s mezzanine level reveals a subtle pattern milled into the concrete floor.

But it was armed with this tongue-in-cheek attitude, as well as an awareness of the site’s history and legacy, that a team of architects, designers and contractors set out to rejuvenate the prison. ‘It was a challenging project for us’, explain the team at Practice Knoblauch, which oversaw the renovation, from planning to construction and fit-out, alongside architects Jürgen Grossman and Konrad Knoblauch. ‘We had to try to understand the world of a prisoner, while incorporating the sensitive heritage of the jail into a new hotel’.

A neutral palette is enlivened by pops of green, blue and pink in both the lobby and the atrium lounge bar on the mezzanine level.

A desire to pay tribute to the building’s roots is evident in the design’s refusal to hide or mask the Liberty’s origins in any way, instead making its previous identity a focal point. In the lobby red sandstone walls tower upwards on two sides, intermittently pockmarked with poky windows sporting rusted iron bars. This is the jail as it was: stark and unyielding, but the two wings of the original structure – each housing 17 guest rooms – are connected by a capacious glass cube where the yard once sat. Flooding the space with light, it is this architectural symbiosis that first greets visitors, a marriage of the contemporary and historic in a manner that emphasises thoughtful, quality design, and avoids making a gimmick of a complex past. 

A bookcase beside the glass elevator shaft spans the entire height of the building, built to symbolise the passage of time. Dramatic floor-to-ceiling curtains soften the effect of the original brick walls.

Treading this line between past and present, the Hotel Liberty boasts an industrial style, a trend that has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years yet still harks back to the burgeoning age of factories and machinery from which the prison hails. A black metal staircase and two gantries join its three levels, each flanked by cosy communal areas that include tables made up of reconstituted vintage suitcases or sections of wooden beams from the original jail. In the corridors, knotted and whorled wood floors pave the way for an exhibition of the prison’s old cell doors, no longer in use, but posted as a fascinating reminder of the confinement this retreat was once designed for.

Clever lighting throughout the hotel envelops it in a warm glow. Although the prison’s cell doors were too small to stay in use, old and new sit side by side and reflect the hotel’s philosophy of design. The cell doors' meal-hatches open to reveal photos of the jail building as it once was.

Inside the guest rooms comfort reigns, with understated navy walls and soft grey furnishings providing a sophisticated haven. The bathroom, tucked away behind a sliding iron door, is something to behold, with a palatial bathtub and a separate frosted glass compartment housing an Axor shower amidst glazed ceramic tiles. Each suite is made up of two or three cells knocked through to create more space, but Practice Knoblauch maintained a nod to the building’s original restrictions by dividing the rooms with a semi-transparent partition, creating a sense of privacy while reflecting the dimensions of the old jailhouse.

In the guest rooms grey-wash walls are decorated with work by local Offenburg artist Stefan Strumbel, whose pieces interpret the themes of captivity and freedom.  Partitioned rooms echo original cell dimensions amid understated luxury, with leather seating and an enviable freestanding bathtub by Axor.

In all this, any sense of gloom is held at bay by a decided playfulness. Guests will find a plush “prison rat” sitting on their pillows, while their “Do Not Disturb” signs are attached to heavy iron keys. Even the hotel’s restaurant, serving contemporary French cuisine from Michelin-starred chef Jeremy Biasiol, is archly named Wasser & Brot – that is, Bread and Water. With its physical and tonal transformation it’s clear the Hotel Liberty’s designers kept one eye firmly on providing a stylish, comfortable and - most challengingly - welcoming destination beyond its unique beginnings. The result is an intriguing paradox of ideas: sometimes, when you’re looking for an escape, captivity is the way to go.

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