August 29, 2002
After 92 years, 3,000 acres of Fairfax County has emerged from the darkness to once again bask in the light.
This past Saturday the former District of Columbia Correctional Facility at Lorton mutated to "Laurel Hill," as hundreds of citizens gathered to participate in the cutting of barbed wire that once symbolized the closed society that is incarceration. It will now become an open expanse of recreation, arts, history and community.
"Today we truly have a gem. It's is a gem that will be shared for generations," pronounced Gerald W. Hyland, vice chairman, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who served as the event's master of ceremonies and in whose Mount Vernon District the facility is located.
"When I was asked about today, I told everyone that this could not have happened without the citizens of this community, our congressional delegation, and the efforts of many people in the county and federal governments," Hyland emphasized.
Fairfax County actually took formal ownership of the former prison site on July 15 when it purchased 2,323 acres for $4.2 million. The remainder of the land had been transferred before July 15. It will be utilized for both public facilities, ranging from parkland to educational facilities, and housing.
THE SITE IS NOW referred to as Laurel Hill in commemoration of the 18th-century structure that served as the home of William Lindsey, a Revolutionary War patriot. It later served as the residence of the superintendent of what was originally known as The Reformatory. The home still stands on the site.
Saturday's ceremony marked the culmination of a process that began with the Lorton Technical Corrections Act of 1998, co-sponsored by Virginia U.S. Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-11th) and James P. Moran (D-8th). It stipulated that most of the 3,000 acres would go to Fairfax County for open space, parks and recreation.
The process was facilitated by the transfer of 800 environmentally sensitive, privately owned acres in the Mason Neck area, known as Meadowood Farm, to the federal government. Hyland, in his remarks, noted that it was the foresight of Charles Creighton that made this swap possible.
The Lorton Act directed the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) "to clean up and transfer the property as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary costs to the taxpayers, to support Fairfax County, as it developed its reuse plan ... and to oversee a federal land exchange" transferring the privately owned Mason Neck nature preserve to federal ownership. Congress appropriated $25 million to accomplish the tasks.
AS ANNOUNCED by Stephen A. Perry, GSA administrator, "GSA brought this project in on time and under budget. And, we are proud to have been a part of bringing this property to a new and better use."
Both Davis and Moran praised the speed with which the transfer took place and attributed it to the coordinated efforts of all parties involved. "I've been in elective office for 20 years, and many of us never thought this would happen. It truly is a dream come true," said Davis.
"This wasn't a property grab. It was a joint effort to help everyone. This was really a team effort and represents a model for the entire country on governmental cooperation," he said.
Davis' assessment was backed up by Moran, who noted, "This is going to be a legacy of green space for all of Northern Virginia. The transfer of this property strikes the right balance in preserving historically significant buildings, promoting wise development, and ensuring that future generations will enjoy open spaces and parks.
"Normally, the federal government would have just sold off this land to the highest bidder, and large, sprawling developments that the existing community did not want would have emerged. This truly does mark a milestone of cooperation between federal and local government."
CHAIRMAN OF THE County Board of Supervisors, Katherine K. Hanley, called the transfer of the Lorton site to the county "the best deal since the acquisitions of Manhattan and Alaska. Laurel Hill will be an oasis of open space."
This fall, the county will commence working with consultants and community representatives to define options for reusing the property. In addition to plans for open space and recreation facilities, there have been a number of proposals put forth. These include a Cold War Museum and an arts and cultural center.
The museum is the creation of Francis Gary Powers Jr., whose father, Francis Gary Powers Sr., was the U2 spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. He was captured, tried and sentenced to 10 years by the Soviets. Eighteen months later he was traded for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, who had been captured and convicted in this country.
Lorton was also the home of one of the nation's NIKE missile sites from 1954-74. The Lorton site served as the national showpiece for the Army's public unveiling of the nationwide NIKE program and was dubbed the "National NIKE Site" due to its proximity to the U.S. capital and its size.
LORTON ALSO became the prototype for the next generation of missiles known as the NIKE-Hercules. Although it carried the same name, NIKE, it was an entirely new missile designed to fit into the established system. It added nuclear warheads to the anti-aircraft missiles, flew up to an altitude of 100,000 feet, and reached a speed of Mach 3.5.
The introduction of nuclear warheads to the Lorton site also changed the environment. The Army added intrusion alarms, erected fences and guard houses, and assigned military police detachments with guard dogs. The tours of the NIKE sites also ceased with the advent of their conversion to a nuclear arsenal.
In stark contrast to the tensions of the Cold War era, an arts group is proposing that a portion of the site be converted to a comprehensive arts center. It would encompass both creative and performing arts as well as provide studio and production space.
Irma Clifton, president of the Lorton Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization backing such a center, sees it as a place for visual arts display and creation as well as for music and dance. It is being presented as a potential tourist attraction similar to the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Old Town Alexandria.
Foundation plans call for acquiring 22 historic buildings within the complex to convert into an artistic community to be known as the Lorton Workhouse. It would provide approximately 70,000 square feet of space for painters, sculptors and other artists as well as gallery areas, a large events hall, and facilities for small concerts and performances.
A PROPOSAL TO THE Board of Supervisors requests a long-term lease of $1 per year in return for the Foundation raising $9.2 million to improve the 40-acre area. The complex would, hopefully, be self-sustaining by 2006, according to the Foundation.
Other plans by the county call for a 41-acre middle-school site and a 76-acre high-school site. Another 285 acres will be dedicated to Pulte Homes to erect a combination of townhouses and single-family dwellings. Also included in the planning process are a 147.3-acre county water facility and 5.6 acres for Amtrak adjacent to I-95.
Having been created under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, to alleviate "deplorable conditions of the District of Columbia's jail and workhouse," Lorton started with an inmate population of 60. When the last prisoners departed in November 2001, more than 80,000 had passed through its gates and resided within its walls.
As it expanded, its brick buildings were built by the inmates themselves with bricks from the on-site kiln complex located on the banks of the Occoquan River. Each of the individuals instrumental in bringing about the transition was presented, during the ceremony, with a shadow box containing a drawing of the original complex and containing a sliver of razor wire. This was accompanied by a plaque honoring their efforts.
THOSE RECEIVING recognition, in addition to Davis, Moran, Hyland and Hanley, were representatives of D.C. Department of Corrections, the Laurel Hill Task Force, congressional and subcommittee staff, other members of the Virginia legislature and county board of supervisors, and numerous representatives of GSA. Music for the event was provided by the Hayfield Madrigal Choir and the Mount Vernon Dixieland Jazz Band.