Powers Pursues Lorton Missile Site

Powers Pursues Lorton Missile Site

Cold War Memorial would be built on land designated a Heritage Area by the County Park Authority.

Francis Gary Powers Jr. was affected by the Cold War before he even knew what it was.

As son of the famed spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, the 39-year-old Fairfax resident wants to make sure that others never forget the international conflict that hit home in his own life.

For the past eight years, Powers has spearheaded an effort to get a permanent Cold War memorial built in Northern Virginia. Now, with the Fairfax County Park Authority finalizing its plans for the former D.C. Correctional Facility in Lorton, Powers may have found a home for his dream.

"The more time that elapses from the Cold War, the more people realize we need to preserve this part of history and not let it slip away," said Powers, who also heads the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We are the trend-setters right now with the preservation of Cold War history and the honoring of Cold War veterans."

Powers made a presentation to the Fairfax County Park Authority Board on Wednesday with the details of his plan, which would put the memorial on the portion of the park designated a "Heritage Area" by the Park Authority Board when it approved a general management and conceptual development plan for the area in late July. Other plans for the 1,200-acre Laurel Hill Park include ball fields, conservation trails and the Lorton Arts Center.

It is on the 20-acre plot of land on the corner of Hooes and Furnace roads that Powers and his board of directors hope to build the Cold War Memorial, and the Park Authority is close to giving its approval.

"I think a lot of people have said, 'What a great idea, and what a unique perspective,' " said Judy Pedersen, Park Authority spokesperson. "I don't think they would have him come in if they weren't serious about moving this forward."

THE HERITAGE AREA currently houses seven buildings, which Powers plans to turn into exhibit halls, devoting a building apiece to each of the six decades from the 1940s to 1990s. The large building at the front of the property would be a welcome center. Another piece of the museum would involve the six Nike-Hercules missile bunkers that are underneath the property. The bunkers were part of the ring of strategic defense sites that surrounded Washington, D.C., in the 1950s and 1960s. Powers plans to open up one of the bunkers, refurbish it with authentic Nike hardware, manuals and equipment, and offer tours.

The Cold War Museum Inc., a registered nonprofit founded in 1996 by Powers and John C. Welch, would finance the construction and operate the memorial. It already owns $2 million worth of artifacts, according to Powers, most of which are on loan to museums across the nation. Among the artifacts are a Stasi prison door, radios used to monitor communication between East and West Germany, and a SAM-2 missile like the one that shot down Powers' father in May 1960. Powers also has a host of memorabilia related to the 1960 U-2 spy-plane incident involving his father. It was the legacy of that incident — during which his father was shot down while piloting a U-2 spy plane and held as a prisoner of war for nearly two years before being exchanged for a Russian spy — that first planted the seeds for a Cold War memorial in Powers’ mind.

"When I was growing up in Southern California, I knew that my father was shot down over Russia. I knew he was involved in the Cold War. I knew he had been a prisoner in the Soviet Union. For me, that was all very normal, I thought everybodys dad was like that," said Powers.

"After his death [in a helicopter crash in 1977] … his office was basically the same, the desk, the pictures on the wall. I’d have friends over and they’d get these awestruck looks on their faces. They’d see the autographed pictures … and they’d say, ‘This is a museum.’ That’s where the idea got planted in my head, that ‘Cold War’ and ‘museum’ go together."

POWERS FILED that away until the early 1990s after Communism in Russia and Germany had fallen. Then a college student at Cal State-Los Angeles, he remembers giving a speech his senior year that would ultimately chart his course in dealing with the Cold War.

"It was the first time I ever talked publicly about my dad and what he went through. I had butterflies in my stomach and didn’t really know why I was feeling that way. After I was able to finish it, it opened the door where I can talk about this. That first time was very gut-wrenching."

Now, Powers delivers nearly 60 talks a year on the Cold War to civic, church, and school groups, proselytizing his cause.

George Mason University professor Stephen Fuller conducted a feasibility study for Powers and believes that the memorial has great potential to be a success.

Fuller performed a market analysis for the memorial in November 2003 and estimated an annual attendance of up to 350,000, based on the attendance rates of similar museums in the Washington, D.C., area, including the International Spy Museum in the District. Fuller also suggested that the Lorton site "offers the advantages of room to grow the exhibits," as well as joint marketing possibilities with the forthcoming Marine Museum in Quantico and Army Museum at Fort Belvoir.

"It's not a slam dunk," Fuller said, "but it certainly has quite an interest and fits well, I think, within the Washington visitor base."

Should the Park Authority give its approval, Powers and his 14-person board of directors — which includes Dr. Gerald Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority; Christian Osterman, director of the Cold War International History Project; and Linda McCarthy, founding curator of the CIA Museum — are ready to spring into action. They have already amassed the $2 million in artifacts and have pledges for artifacts when they have a location. "We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place right now," said Powers. "The county would like to see us have a little more money in the bank, and grant-makers, corporate sponsors would like to see us have a physical location. We’re trying to view both at the same time."

Powers estimates it would be two or three years once they receive permission to the time the memorial would be ready to open.

"We right now are the only group that fits that description, and we are optimistic that we will get permission to use the land very soon."